The Cincinnati Bengals open their season on Sunday on the road against the Cleveland Browns. This will be the second year in a row that the Bengals open up their season with a divisional foe, and this year the Bengals will look to avoid the slow start that held them out of the No. 1 overall seed in 2022.
To do that, the Bengals will need to be at their best to take on a Browns team that, on paper, seems like it could make a push to the postseason. Here are a few matchups that could decide the outcome of the game.
Orlando Brown Jr. vs. Myles Garrett
You shouldn’t be surprised that this is the first on the list. Garrett is one of the best edge rushers in the NFL and is coming off four straight seasons with double-digit sacks. Brown Jr. was brought to Cincinnati as a free agent this offseason to help the team deal with edge rushers, and he’ll get a huge test in his first game with the team.
Quarterback Joe Burrow’s health, due to a calf strain he suffered early in the preseason that held him out of camp, is somewhat questionable. We know he’s going to play on Sunday, as he has practiced fully so far this week, but we don’t know how mobile he’ll be. If he’s not able to move in or outside of the pocket as well as he normally could, and if Brown Jr. can’t keep Garrett out of the backfield, the Bengals offense could be in trouble.
D.J. Reader vs. Nick Chubb
The Browns offense will likely flow through their running back, which makes sense, considering Chubb is one of the best in the league. Luckily for the Bengals, one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles is Reader. He has helped the Bengals shut down the running games of several big-name backs, including Derrick Henry in the playoffs, throughout his time in Cincinnati.
If the Bengals are going to win, they’ll have to make sure the Browns just don’t run the ball down their throats, which could potentially keep Burrow and the high-powered offense on the sideline. Reader will be dealing with an interior offensive line that includes Joel Bitonio, Ethan Pocic, and Wyatt Teller on Sunday, and forcing them to double-team him will help linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt fill holes and shut the running game down.
Dax Hill/Nick Scott vs. Deshaun Watson
The Bengals lost both Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell in free agency and replaced the two experienced safeties with Hill and Scott. Hill is a second-year player with almost no game experience, and Scott was signed as a free agent with a little more than one season of starting experience from the Rams. Both are very athletic and have a lot of speed, but their lack of experience could hurt them.
Watson is coming off the last half of the 2022 season after he served an 11-game suspension. In that time, he completed only 58.2% of his passes for 1,102 yards, seven touchdowns, and five interceptions. However, with a full offseason to prepare, he could return to form, and if that happens, he could look to pick on the Bengals' young safeties. Hopefully, they’re up for the task.
Joe Burrow vs. Browns Defense
This seems too vague, right? Well, not exactly. First, in five games against the Browns, Burrow has been sacked 18 times, which is just too many over a five-game stretch versus any team. While he has thrown for 10 touchdowns and only five interceptions against the Browns, his record against Cleveland is 1-5 through his career, and they have averaged only 15 points in the three losses they suffered over the last two seasons.
To win on Sunday, the offense will need to play up to their potential against a tough defense, and that all starts with Burrow. If he’s fully healthy and the offensive line gives him enough time to find his receivers, the sky is the limit. If he is rushed, or if the run game can’t get going, Burrow will have to find alternate ways to move the ball down the field.
The Bengals vs. The Perception the Browns “have their number”
The Bengals have won the division for the last two years, and if they win it in 2023, they’ll be the first team in the history of the AFC North to win the division three years in a row. They’ve done all that while having a 1-3 record against the Browns over the last two seasons. Because of that, there has been a narrative that the Browns have the Bengals number, and no matter how successful the Bengals are in the postseason, they can’t beat the Cleveland Browns.
While we know that’s not true, perception is reality. Until the Bengals consistently beat the Browns, the sense that they can’t will continue to be their reality. Beating the Browns on Sunday, and doing so in a convincing fashion, will go a long way to shedding the idea that the Bengals can’t handle the Browns but somehow manage to handle the Kansas City Chiefs more often than not.
See how ridiculous that sounds?
What matchup are you looking forward to seeing play out on Sunday the most?