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Way-too-early schedule predictions: Bengals vs. Panthers

Christian McCaffrey had a career day the last time these two teams met.

Cincinnati Bengals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals’ 2022 schedule will be one of the toughest in the entire NFL.

However, they did get a bit lucky in drawing the NFC South as their cross-conference division to face this year.

Sure, the Tom Brady-led Bucs will be formidable, but the Saints, Panthers and Falcons are three games Cincinnati needs to win.

That’s especially true of the Week 9 home matchup with Carolina, who enters the 2022 season with far more questions than answers.

Looking at various preseason rankings, some believe the Panthers will be the worst team in football this year, and everyone has them pegged as a bottom-10 team.

Needless to say, this is one of those games Cincinnati desperately needs to win in light of a brutal schedule.

As has been the case in recent years, the Panthers live and die on the shoulders of Christian McCaffrey, who’s arguably the best back in football when healthy, but he’s played in just 10 games over the last two years.

The Bengals don’t have to look too far back as to the last time they faced McCaffrey. During the 2018 season, McCaffrey had the best rushing game of his career in Week 3 vs. visiting Cincinnati, going for a career-high 184 yards on 28 carries with two grabs for 10 yards.

Thankfully, the Bengals defense has improved dramatically since then, while McCaffrey’s play has taken a steep decline. He hasn't run for 100 yards in his last 10 games, though he does have six games of 50+ receiving yards in that span. He’s still one of the best duel-threat backs in the game and will be tough for any defense to slow down if healthy.

It certainly hasn’t helped McCaffrey that he’s played behind one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines in recent years, which is why the Panthers were very aggressive in upgrading this group this offseason. They added Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett in free agency, then spent the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL Draft on North Carolina State offensive tackle Ickey Ekwonu.

Like the Bengals, this is a unit that ‘should’ be vastly improved this season, but they still have to prove it on the field.

The real question is who will be the Panthers’ starting quarterback when Week 9 arrives. Sam Darnold is the projected starter, but he’s been a disaster over the last two seasons with 18 passing touchdowns vs. 24 interceptions and a 6-17 record in 23 starts.

By this point in the season, the Panthers could be in full rebuild mode and have someone else playing quarterback. Third-round pick Matt Corral will likely start at some point in 2022, and my guess is that’s the case by the time the Bengals host the Panthers.

Coming into this year’s NFL Draft, compared Corral to Baker Mayfield, and we know how much trouble he’s given the Bengals. Corral probably isn’t as good of a thrower but should be a better runner, so the combo of him and McCaffrey in the backfield could give the Bengals defense fits, especially with wideouts like DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson who can stretch the field.

Given how tough Cincinnati’s schedule is, this could easily be a trap game, especially with the bye coming in Week 10. This is still a game the Bengals absolutely have to win given how daunting the schedule is about to get with looming games at Tennessee, vs. Kansas City, vs. Cleveland with potentially Deshaun Watson at QB, at Tampa Bay, at New England, vs. Buffalo and vs. Baltimore within the final seven weeks.

One other note: The Panthers have shown strong interest in acquiring Baker Mayfield. If that happens, this game becomes more challenging, though I’m still going with Cincinnati to come out on top.

ESPN FPI: Bengals have a 63.9% chance to win.

My prediction: Bengals 38, Panthers 23

My predicted record thus far: 8-1

Let us know how you see this one playing out!