Lost in the excitement of the start of another NFL season and the divisive opinions surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York. There will be some remembrances before the games this weekend, but it will be particularly real once again for those in attendance at MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Though we don’t like to minimize enormous national tragedies by equating them to sporting events, we’ve seen cities rally around their hometown football team as part of the recovery process. It happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the New York Jets will want to harness the emotion of their fans and the tragic anniversary this Sunday to start the 2016 season off with a critical conference win against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Meanwhile, the guys in orange and black might be playing with heavy hearts because one of the best coaches in their franchise’s history, Sam Wyche, is currently in a hospital awaiting a heart transplant. Either way, both teams will be playing with emotion and will undoubtedly be hungry for a win.
There are a lot of similarities between the current structure of both rosters, and both teams are feeling the losses of important players. For the Bengals, two Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball will not be playing, as tight end Tyler Eifert is recovering from ankle surgery, while linebacker Vontaze Burfict is serving a suspension. The Jets’ Sheldon Richardson joins Burfict as a suspended player this week, and right tackle Breno Giacomini is on the PUP List.
From the outside looking in, this game has an air of being a close one. Both teams had double-digit wins last season, both have experienced significant additions and attrition this offseason and both are led by well-respected head coaches. Yet, one team continues to have something in its corner that the other doesn’t: a historical advantage.
Sometimes a team just has another’s number. Such seems to be the case with the Bengals and the AFC East division, which could also be called the “thorn in the Bengals’ side.” Since the Jets and Bengals have faced off against each other starting in 1968, Cincinnati has a deplorable 8-17 record against New York, including the postseason.
What could be worse in the head-to-head stats between the teams? How about the fact that the Bengals haven’t beaten the Jets in New York since 1981.
The longtime cynical Bengals fans have to be readily proclaiming, “of course that’s the situation”. However, this is a team that has bucked recent trends in the form of two straight opening day wins in 2014 and 2015, while also tying the franchise record for regular season wins last year.
So, which Bengals team shows up this Sunday? The one that was on a warpath at the beginning of 2015 to the tune of an 8-0 start, or the one that shrinks in big moments? With the Jekyll and Hyde nature we have all seen this franchise embody over the years, expecting the unexpected has become the norm in the autumn weekends.
Going into this matchup, a lot will be made about the head-to-head clashes between starting players. Adam Jones versus Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green against Darrelle Revis are a couple of the marquee matchups. However, it’s the rotational role players who may have the biggest impact on the outcome this Sunday.
One storyline that seems to be overlooked this Sunday, and maybe rightfully so because he’s a kicker, is Mike Nugent’s return to New York. In 2005, the Jets used a second round pick on the Ohio State standout, only to see him last just four seasons with the team. He has spent the past six years with the Bengals, but fan pressure has increased of late—especially after a subpar 2016 preseason. Poetic justice could come to fruition on Sunday, in the form of Nugent lining up for a critical kick to determine the outcome of the game.
Another interesting anecdote surrounding the game is quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s odd career journey and his Bengals ties. After rising to prominence with the Rams over a decade ago, Fitzpatrick has been with five teams in a nine-year span. One of those clubs was the Bengals on a two-year stint, in which he came in for the injured Carson Palmer in 2008. They courted him for a backup job to Andy Dalton a couple of years later, but decided he’d start elsewhere.
After a smattering of up-and-down seasons since leaving The Queen City, “Fitzmagic” began to galvanize The Big Apple. With over 3,900 yards passing and 33 total touchdowns, he led the J-E-T-S to a 10-win season in 2015. Though tensions ran high between the club and Fitz this offseason because of a contract stalemate, he’s back throwing to three great receiving options in Marshall, Eric Decker and Matt Forte.
And therein lies one of the biggest matchup problems for the Bengals on Sunday. After seeming like they had one of the best secondary situations in the NFL, issues have hit the safety and cornerback spots. Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson left in free agency, while William Jackson III is out for an extended period of time and Darqueze Dennard is doubtful this week. In short, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Shawn Williams and Josh Shaw will all need to play some of the best football of their lives this week.
Even though the Bengals have been getting back a number of injured players for the opener, the massive amount of injuries they have experienced this offseason will test the much-lauded depth the club has seemingly built over the past few seasons. Can some of the younger and unproven players step up in a big Week 1 matchup to help the team to a win? Or will the ailments prove that the Bengals have simply built a house of cards?
It’s Week 1, so let’s be optimistic and say it’s the former rather than the latter.
Bengals 20, Jets 16
AC — God Bless America.