Cincinnati is coming off an NFL-worst 2-14 season last year. The Bengals finished the season ranked No. 30 on offense and No. 25 on defense. Los Angeles, on the other hand, came in at No. 14 defensively, and boasted a top-5 unit against the pass. The Chargers boasted a No. 6 offense despite finishing with a 5-11 record.
Of course, none of that means much of anything this year.
Philip Rivers, the man who directed the Chargers’ passing attack last year and was a fixture in the backfield for the past 16 years, is now in Indianapolis. And the Bengals might look just a little bit different, as well.
Joe Burrow, winner of the national championship and Heisman Trophy, the holder of numerous passing records during a phenomenal season at LSU and one of the better prospects to come out of college football, perhaps ever, is now in Cincinnati. That, and a quarter used to get you a cup of coffee.
Jonah Williams, Cincinnati’s top draft pick from a year ago, will finally start his first game in a Bengals’ uniform after a stellar career in Alabama. A shoulder injury sidelined Williams for all of the 2019 season.
And talk about a trial by fire. Williams will be pitted against Joey Bosa, the Chargers’ No. 1 draft choice in 2016, and Melvin Ingram, III, the Chargers’ first-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Bosa has already accumulated 40 sacks in his career, was the Defensive Rookie of the Year and is a two-time Pro Bowler. His 11.5 sacks last year put him among the top five edge rushers in the league. Ingram, who has made it to the Pro Bowl every year since 2017, finished with seven sacks last year and was rated in the 20s.
“Yeah, very talented.,” Bengals’ coach Zac Taylor said in his press conference Wednesday. “Those two edge guys create a lot of problems and put a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks. They can really be the catalyst for their defense. They got talent at the linebacker position as well. They got some safeties that are talented. We certainly got our work cut out for us but our guys are going to be ready and we are excited for the challenge.”
Some of that excitement stems from the return of perennial all-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green, who missed all of the 2019 season and most of 2018 with injuries. Joe Mixon is regarded in many circles as one of the better running backs in the league, and receiver Tyler Boyd is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Couple that with the fastest man in the league in John Ross and new arrival Tee Higgins, a second-round selection out of Clemson with first-round talent and you have the makings of a real offensive juggernaut. Of course, none of that means anything until you put it together on the field.
And then there is the defense, which will boast at least five new starters, including free-agent acquisitions D.J. Reader at tackle, cornerback Mackensie Alexander, linebacker Josh Bynes and safety Vonn Bell. Certainly, the defense looks much improved on paper, especially against the run, where the Bengals finished dead last in 2019.
But, for now, the numbers say that the Chargers are the better team, and they are currently about a three-point favorite, even though the game will be played in Cincinnati, albeit without any fans. And it’s about what you would expect, unless and until the Bengals can change the narrative. All we can do now is wait and see.