What a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, the Cincinnati Bengals were 0-2 and just made a much-needed change at offensive coordinator. Even with the shake-up, the team lost their third straight in heartbreaking fashion in Green Bay against the Packers to start the 2017 season 0-3.
Cincinnati regrouped a bit, but still stumbled to a 7-9 finish to the year. Although they finished on a strong note with two straight wins to close out last season, the national perception was fairly negative regarding the Bengals heading into 2018.
However, the narrative has began to slowly change. Folks like what the team did in the offseason—both in free agency and the draft—only to be followed by a near-perfect preseason.
And, it seems, the momentum has continued to carry over into the 2018 regular season. The Bengals have two impressive wins in exciting fashion and are sitting atop the AFC North.
Remember the 2009 squad? Expectations weren’t very high that offseason for the Bengals either, yet that team kept winning tough games—often in come-from-behind style. The trademark of that team was a 6-0 record against the AFC North, and the 2018 squad is off to a similar start at 1-0 within the division.
Things are largely going well for the Bengals heading into Week 3. They’ve shown some weaknesses and are dealing with some injuries, but most feel that this team is ahead of schedule, in terms of rebounding from the past two disappointing seasons.
Aside from a fluky interception on the first pass of the season, Andy Dalton has been superb, racking up 508 passing yards and a 108.5 rating. In fact, since Bill Lazor took over as offensive coordinator for Ken Zampese, Dalton has thrown for 31 touchdowns against just nine interceptions in the past 16 games.
Not too shabby.
A.J. Green has had some issues with fumbles in the first two games with three total (one lost), but he has otherwise played like a man possessed. Between his four touchdown receptions, the continuously-emerging Tyler Boyd, the trio of talented tight ends and their two-headed rushing attack, this offense is a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in 2016 and parts of 2017.
The defense is ranked No. 30 against the pass, but that may be a bit of an anomaly. Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco threw a combined 108 attempts the past two weeks, racking up numbers as they tried to mount comebacks.
And, in a surprising contrast to 2017, the Bengals rank third in the league in rushing yards per game allowed. They’ve also gotten after the quarterback frequently, making the move to Teryl Austin looking like another sage offseason decision by the Bengals.
Ultimately, the NFL is about amassing more talent than the other 31 teams, but success or failure also hinges on quarterback play and the creation of matchup problems. Those are the challenges this Sunday poses for the Bengals.
Yes, Cincinnati has bucked a lot of trends and shattered some preconceived notions in their 2-0 start, but multi-dimensional offensive weapons have traditionally given them trouble. The Carolina Panthers employ two such weapons.
As it was with the Bengals back in 2011, the Panthers were in rebuilding mode and needed a quarterback. They used the No. 1 overall pick on Cam Newton, who has granted Carolina four playoff berths in the past seven seasons, including an appearance in Super Bowl 50.
Under center, Newton is massive, nimble and employs a rocket arm. Yes, he is prone to turnovers, and causing them is a forte of this year’s Bengals defense, but he also racks up stats and points like an arcade game.
Last time these two teams faced nearly four full years ago, Newton had an incredible game, as the result was a 37-37 tie. Regardless, Newton gouged Cincinnati’s defense with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) and 391 total yards (284 passing, 107 rushing).
Carolina also granted Newton a fantastic weapon last year—both to take pressure off of his own legs and as to provide an outlet in the passing game. Christian McCaffrey had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns as a rookie, and has 20 receptions already in 2018.
Cincinnati’s defense, while netting a plus-four turnover differential this year, has had trouble covering the short passes. Yards-after-the-catch plays from backs and tight ends have been their kryptonite, which is some of what Newton and McCaffrey feast upon.
The Bengals also come into Week 3 banged up. Even though they took it to the Ravens, some of their better players are either out or questionable this week. Joe Mixon, Billy Price, Michael Johnson, Bobby Hart and Preston Brown are all starters dealing with varying ailments.
One matchup to keep an eye on is in the Bengals’ passing offense going up against the Panthers’ pass defense. Cincinnati ranks 17th in the category, while Carolina sits at No. 7 through the first two games. While the Bengals’ middle-ranking doesn’t look all that impressive at first blush, the luster lies mostly in their six touchdowns against just one interception so far.
Carolina has tended to exude a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature in the Newton era, and this season’s 1-1 start has been a microcosm of the past seven seasons. Still—it’s in the matchups.
The Bengals are limping a little bit, heading on the road and may hit some nasty weather, thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Florence. They also haven’t traditionally fared well against versatile quarterbacks.
Unfortunately, this Sunday has the makings of a perfect storm and, subsequently, they’re leaving Charlotte with a 2-1 record.
Bengals 20, Panthers 28
AC — Thundercats a-go!