As we wrap up this all-too-early assessment of the 2012 schedule, we have seen that there are plenty of reasons to allow a sense of optimism and pride to ease the years of frustration and angst that have defined most of the Mike Brown era. As this team flexes its new muscles, we will find that they can keep pace with most of the heavy-hitters in the league.
The NFL schedule makers saved some of the best for last for the Bengals, leaving two NFC East teams and then their always tough division rivals to close out the season. This will be the trial by fire that prepares the team to claim that elusive prize: a playoff victory.
The Cowboys leave their comfortable confines to play in the harsh elements in the wintry midwest. For a team that has frequently struggled to close out the season strong and relies primarily on its passing game, the specter of playing in the cold air of an outdoor stadium in the north will not be a welcome prospect.
Having the D-line control the running game (Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray) without help from the back seven is the key — and doable — task in this game. This will allow the secondary the freedom to be aggressive and look for turnovers. Not being a believer in Tony Romo, I think they can frustrate and bait him into a couple of picks.
Dallas’ defense will try to force the Bengals to play the same game and throw in less-than-favorable passing conditions while under pressure. That will make the tight ends a big factor in this game, helping open holes for the running game against a good run defense and gashing the middle when Dallas loads up the box.
Odds of a Bengals win: Somewhat Favorable
The Eagles are typically the toughest defense in their division, but they do not frequently go up against opponents with defenses as tough as the ones they will face in the AFC North. By this point, the rest of the division will have laid a blueprint for the Bengals as to how to play the Eagles. (Or maybe how not to play the Eagles.)
The Eagles devoted their first three picks to a DT, an ILB, and a DT as well as bringing in ILB DeMeco Ryans from Houston to fix their biggest need: run defense. If the rest of the team plays to the level at which they finished last year, the Eagles will be a tough team two beat. But that means making two assumptions: 1) Michael Vick stays healthy through the season, which he has had trouble doing, and 2) the grumpy DeSean Jackson does not continue hurt his team by being a colossal a… idiot.
The Bengals D-line must keep Michael Vick in the pocket, and the LBs must contain TE Brent Celek. We know the Bengals’ history in containing TEs, although they were a bit better last year than in the past. And the kickers must do their best to dictate field position, because the Eagles will move the ball.
On offense, the rookies Charles, Sanu and Jones could have a huge impact, giving Philly a dose of its own medicine by spreading out the Eagles’ defense and sending more at them than they can cover, forcing them to choose who gets their primary attention… which we know will be Green and Gresham. When Gruden has his WCO implemented and running smoothly, it will bear some similarities to the Eagles’ offense.
Odds of a Bengals win: Even
Heading into the final two weeks, we finally get down to really sorting out the division. The Bengals will be fighting with the Ravens for the top of the division, while the Steelers will be trying climb over the Bengals for second place in the AFCN.
A Steelers fan chided me for pointing to the age of the Steelers’ roster as an issue, but this is when I see that age becoming a factor. They will have faced a number of very good defenses over the preceding six games, and the grizzled veterans won’t bounce back quite as fast as they used to. I’m not saying that they won’t be ready to play on game day or even that they will be at half strength. But they may be at 90%. And that could be just the sliver of an advantage that the Bengals need.
No doubt Dick LeBeau will save a wrinkle or two for Andy Dalton for their second match. So will Mike Zimmer. Plus with Still and Thompson now fully participating in the D-line rotation, the run defense will be stronger when the weather is more likely to be a factor.
Odds of a Bengals win: Even
They opened the season facing each other, and now they close out the season against each other. Suggs promises right now to be back before the end of the season. That is a huge gamble for the organization to make with a franchise player. The medical staff likely will not be willing to risk a re-injury and will opt to shut him down for 2012.
PBS will not have a problem selling out for this game. I would not be surprised to see this game have big implications for the division, and for the playoffs in who travels and who does not, as I think that both the Bengals and the Ravens will get in.
Again, limiting the damage from Ray Rice is the focal point on defense, because I do not view Flacco as having the ability to beat the Bengals with his arm alone. On offense, I can envision Gruden having developed a sort of rotation (much like the D-line) where Green and Gresham get steady use while Charles, Sanu, Jones and others are regularly trading series — even first downs — to keep legs fresh and to keep defenses guessing. Mike Brown will like this strategy because it will spread around stats, keeping individual numbers lower… and by extension the players’ leverage when their contracts are up.
By this point, the offense should be honed well enough to be an even match with the always-tough Ravens defense. And the increasingly potent Ravens offense will challenge the Bengals on defense, given everyone watching as good of a show as the season opener.
Odds of a Bengals win: Even
As we turn the calendar to 2013, we will find the Bengals sitting at 11-5 and preparing for another playoff appearance. And everyone who used history to argue that they would not make the postseason in 2012 will be eating their words as a New Year’s treat.