I know, hockey and basketball still have yet to finish playing, and baseball and NASCAR have just started their seasons. Football currently is only being seen in old reruns on the NFL Network. But that should not spoil the fun of taking an early look at the schedule give a little preview of each game. As the title represents, this will be a 4 part series as I don't want to hog this board as there is a lot to look at for each game. So without further delay, let's take a look at the first four games of the season.
The schedule makers presented the Bengals with a schedule that looks similar to the one from their last playoff appearance. Just as 2005, the entire NFC North is on the schedule. Against them, the Bengals defense picked off 18 passes which became more than half of their total INTs (31) for the season, going 4-0 against the division. The Bengals also played the Houston Texans that year, winning 16-10. But unlike the 2005 season, this year's schedule has the AFC West on it. The last time the AFC West was on the schedule, which occurred during the 2006 season, the Bengals split the season 2-2. But against the AFC North in 2005, the Bengals went 5-1 en route to winning their first Division Title since 1990. So with that out of the way, let's start breaking down each game.
Game 1 of this season is against the Denver Broncos, who have had an interesting off season starting with the firing of long time coach Mike Shanahan, the hiring of Josh McDaniel, the pursuit of Matt Cassel, and the trading of Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears for Kyle Orton and some draft picks. McDaniel helped mold Cassel into a highly prized free agent after just one full season as a starter, but will he be able to get the same effectiveness from Orton in less time? But Orton, along with the rest of the Broncos team, will probably have to learn a new system with new terminology. This could put a crimp on the team's and Orton's development in preparation for the season. Very few teams have had the kind of success that the Dolphins and Falcons had last season after their coaching changes. But with the team first mentality that McDaniel's brings from New England, anything is possible. The significant draft pick of this past draft is running back Knowshon Moreno, who in 2007 started only 6 times but finished that season with over 1300 yards rushing and averaged 105 yards per game during his abbreviated career. He could help take some pressure off of Orton allowing him to manage the game rather than try and win it. Last season's offense, under the leadership of Cutler, finished 2nd overall averaging 395.8 yards per game. Don't expect that type of output with the changes this team has undergone. The defense finished 29th overall allowing 375 yards per game, so the only direction they can go is up. However, they did draft Robert Ayers from Tennessee, who won the Volunteers Most Improved Player this past season. His addition can only improve the floundering defense that struggled to keep teams from scoring. The Broncos lead the series 16-8 including the 2006 24-23 victory over the Bengals in Denver.
For game 2, the Bengals travel to Green Bay to take on the disappointing Packers, who last season let their future Hall Famer Brett Favre go in favor of Aaron Rodgers, who performed effectively, but not at the level Packer fans have become accustom to. But this is Rodgers 5th season with the Packers so a better season is expected. Under Rodgers, the offense finished the season 8th overall gaining an average of351.1 yards per game. The defense finished 20th overall giving up 334 yards per game, which became the focus of this season's draft. They were able to strengthen the defense with the additions of B.J. Raji and Clay Mathews, son of former NFL linebacker Clay Mathews. The last time the Bengals played the Pack in 2005, the defense intercepted Favre 5 times in the 21-14 victory, equaling the series at 5-5.
Game 3 is the opening game of the AFC North Divisional season with the defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who needed little help from the referees to win it. Now that they have won 2 Super Bowls in the past four seasons, they will have a huge target on their backs as expectations will be high for a repeat. The Steelers have pretty much had their way with the Bengals, and this season could be no exception. The Bengals have lost 5 in a row since with their last victory coming in week 3 of the 2006 season. That increased the Steelers record over the Bengals to 47-30. The Steelers roster didn't change too much during the off-season, which means nearly everyone from last season's championship team returns. The only notable loss was Byron Leftwich who signed with Tampa Bay, but did add cornerback Keiwan Ratliff from Indianapolis. With a reputation of producing a sound defense that finished 1st last season, they appear to continue that trend taking DT Evander Hood in the first round of this year's draft. Since the defensive line is already set, he will add depth this season and should not be expected to start for a year or two. But in stark contrast, the Steelers offense averaged a pedestrian 311.9 yards per game, finishing 22nd in total offense. The week 3 meeting between the two teams is now scheduled to start at 4:15 instead of the usual 1:00 start time as part of the CBS doubleheader. Despite the apparent advantage of the Steelers, maybe the Bengals can protect Paul Brown Stadium and prevent the Steelers from feeling that it is their home away from home.
Game 4 comes against instate opponent Cleveland Browns, who have a quarterback situation that could put a strain on the team between former starter Derrick Anderson and Dublin, Ohio native Brady Quinn. Neither posted really terrifying numbers last season putting them into competition mode for the starting job. The offense finished 31st in total yards averaging 249.1 yards per game. With a struggling offense, a team needs to have a defense to carry them, but the Browns defense was unable to do that finishing 26th overall yielding 356.5 yards per game. The rumblings this past draft that Cleveland was interested in Mark Sanchez should have sent a signal to Quinn and Anderson that their jobs are on the line. But does either have the ability to meet the challenge? In 2007, Anderson led Cleveland to a 10-6 record getting within an eyelash of making the playoffs; Quinn has only started 3 games in his career, losing 2 of them. The Battle of Ohio has recently become one-sided as the Bengals have won 7 of the last 9 meetings, pushing ahead in the series 35-34-0. A number of those recent meetings have caused the scoreboard to "tilt" not being able to keep up with the points being scored by both teams. The Browns this past off season look to be going toward youth as they released 11 year veteran Joe Jurevicius and have not resigned unrestricted free agent Willie McGinest, but have signed Mike Furry who was released by the Lions and Eric Barton of the Jets.
The first quarter of the season doesn't look as daunting on paper as most of these teams have had off season issues which can lead to disruption of team chemistry. If those teams don't jell early, they could be what the Bengals need to get a good start when they haven't had one in sometime.