One could call the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2016 campaign, “the year of the hangover”. Since losing the 2015 Wild Card game to the Pittsburgh Steelers in one of the most heartbreaking fashions imaginable, the dark cloud hung over Paul Brown Stadium for the following 12 months.
In fairness, it wasn’t just a lingering feeling of being shell-shocked in the playoffs that led to a six-win season by the Bengals last year. An aging roster, ineffectiveness from long-tenured starters, a lack of offensive sizzle, injuries and coaching turnover also contributed to one of the more disappointing seasons in the Marvin Lewis era.
But, 2017 is now upon us. Cincinnati has made it known that their roster will look different because of the rejuvenation of youth and athleticism injected into it and if this preseason showed us anything, it’s that the future is bright.
Is the future now?
Aside from the opener being already being a critical one for Cincinnati’s playoff hopes in 2017, the entire season is a pivotal one for the long-term direction of franchise. Lewis is in a contract year with a plethora of talent, while offensive coordinator Ken Zampese is under the microscope with the most talent at the skill positions since the early days of the Carson Palmer era.
And, as it always goes with Lewis and his staff, the question of how much trust he has in his young players will be a big factor in the outcome of the 2017 season. We have yet to see if the impressive preseason performances from rookies will change some of the proclivities the long-tenured head coach has shown towards his trusted veterans—for better or worse.
For the first time in almost a decade, the Bengals open the season at home. The last time they hosted a foe in the season opener, we heard former CBS play-by-play guy, Gus Johnson, yell the name “Brandon Stokley” in one of the more improbable finishes to a game we’ve seen in recent memory occurred in such Bengals-like fashion.
To add insult to injury, in terms of heart-breaking openers, the Bengals and Ravens clashed in Week 1 in 2012 and Cincinnati was embarrassed on national television. Baltimore stomped the Bengals on Monday Night Football to the tune of 44-13.
But, that was five years ago when guys like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis patrolled the Ravens’ defense. In fact, since 2014, the Bengals have owned the series, winning five of the last six. And, if you want to use a cliche, the matchups from the past couple of years have taught us to expect the unexpected.
Sunday’s game may very well be one of substance versus flash. The latter definitely resides in the Bengals’ corner, while some believe that Baltimore may have the upper hand in the former category.
When you ask those who ardently follow the Ravens, they believe that their defense is going to be a top-five unit this year. With their No. 5 finish against the run, to go with their No. 7 overall finish as a defense in 2016, it’s a lofty but realistic goal—especially when you look at the addition of Tony Jefferson, Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr to their beleaguered secondary.
Let’s not underplay the Bengals’ defense, though.
Of course, two of Cincinnati’s star defenders—Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones—won’t be suiting up on Sunday, making life easier for Flacco. Aside from fueling the inaccurate national narrative of being the NFL’s bad boys, the Bengals will need to compensate for the losses of these two grizzled veterans.
So, the aforementioned lens will now be shined upon Bengals cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson III. Though the Ravens don’t have a superstar receiver in the mold of A.J. Green, they do have a potentially explosive trio in Jeremy Maclin, Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace. Cincinnati’s former first round picks will need to prove their worth, as Jones sits this week.
There are a few guys who will obviously be under the microscope on Sunday. Green has absolutely destroyed the Ravens lately, so the new trio in Baltimore’s secondary will need to step up this week. Joe Flacco looks to suit up in Week 1 after missing all of the preseason. Will he and some of the new additions on offense be on the same page?
One area the Ravens seem to have an upper hand, or rather, leg, is in the kicking game. Justin Tucker is the best field goal kicker in the business and with a potential struggle on offense, Baltimore will be relying on him to get a fair chunk of their total points on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Randy Bullock is the guy the Bengals decided to go with in 2017. He’s been great for the Bengals in kicks he should make, but the crunch time attempts remain an issue. Cincinnati might be hoping to get a late lead so that the pressure won’t be on Bullock immediately after winning a close competition over Jake Elliott this summer.
Week 1 provides an odd dichotomy for a team. Getting in the win column right away, particularly at home, is a great way to start a season. However, we’ve seen teams rebound nicely after a poor start. Heck, the Patriots lost at home on Thursday night against the Chiefs. Is it all doom-and-gloom in New England?
If this was later in the year with Flacco having more time to acclimate to his new weapons, I’d be inclined to say Baltimore has the edge. I’m hesitant to say it with his accumulation of potential rust this summer.
Still, this is a critical divisional game to start the year. Both teams will be hungry for a win, while the Bengals will be looking to feed off of an excited home crowd. Side note: if you’re a fan and are attending the game, don’t boo your boys at the very first sign of trouble—get behind them.
It’ll be a close one, likely ugly at times, but I think the Bengals catch the Ravens at the right time of the year on their home turf.
Ravens 16, Bengals 21
AC — Have a little patience.