Week 1 in the NFL is often an anomaly. Sometimes a big win proves to be fool’s gold a couple of months later, while quality teams sometimes struggle as they shake off the summertime rust.
With the way that the schedule has shaped up for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, they can ill afford to feel the effects of said rust this September. Both teams kick off their respective seasons with back-to-back divisional games (one apiece at home and on the road), with the first clash pitting these two old foes against one another.
Last year, Cincinnati plodded to a sluggish 0-2 start, including a divisional loss to kick off the season. After getting their rhythm and weathering the storm of some big early and mid-season injuries, the Bengals became the hottest team into and through the playoff bracket.
While the talent of this Bengals team could hypothetically go on a similar run should those early struggles happen again, it would be a much steeper slope to climb with two divisional losses right off the bat. The good news is that the character of the Cincinnati locker room senses urgency and doesn’t flinch when facing do-or-die situations right in the eye.
And that trait is all well and good, but its effectiveness gets watered down a bit when looking at who’s on this week’s docket. Joe Burrow and Co. have made minced meat out of a number of teams, getting lingering pianos off of the Bengals’ backs, but this Browns team just gives Cincinnati fits.
Anyone who’s paid attention knows some of the bleak numbers. Just two wins in the past 10 contests and exactly zero victories in Cleveland since October of 2017. Burrow and Zac Taylor’s record is a stark contrast to Marvin Lewis’ 22-10 career against the Browns, including 10-6 at “The Dawg Pound”.
While Cincinnati’s struggles have been because of a variety of reasons, this awful stretch has truly come down to two of the Browns’ biggest stars: Myles Garrett and Nick Chubb. Both have been utterly dominant in almost every game they’ve faced off against the Bengals.
Garrett has tormented various Bengals tackles over the years. He’s racked up 10 sacks and 23 total tackles versus Cincinnati and wrecked games on defense.
Chubb has been an absolute game-wrecker behind that stout offensive line. He’s rushed for 797 yards, seven touchdowns, and had five 100-yard games while adding 119 receiving yards and a touchdown catch against Cincinnati.
The good news for the Bengals is that the last time these two teams faced off, Chubb had his lowest rushing total in all games played for the Bengals with a paltry 34 yards. Want to guess the result of that contest?
For the Garrett problem, the Bengals continued to bolster their offensive line in the form of big man Orlando Brown, Jr. as their left tackle and moving Jonah Williams (who’s had mixed results, at best, against Garrett) to the right side. To counter, Cleveland brings Za’Darius Smith, who not only continues to provide a solid pass-rush at 31 years old but also flexibility, allowing new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to exploit mismatches with his two edges by moving them around.
But, while we know the root of past recent problems for the Bengals in this rivalry, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks and the pass-catching weapons they employ.
Burrow is coming off of a freshly-inked historic deal, keeping him in Cincinnati for the next seven years. The long-term future of Tee Higgins isn’t as clear, he’s a matchup nightmare for defenses, while superstar Ja’Marr Chase is hitting his prime, and Tyler Boyd remains one of the most reliable slot players in all of the league.
Folks are excited at Irv Smith, Jr. as an ancillary weapon in the offense at tight end, as the team is trying to figure out which backup running back brings the most versatility. Throw in Trenton Irwin, who had a big touchdown versus Cleveland on a flea-flicker last year, and two new rookie wideouts, and the cabinet appears full.
On the other sideline, Deshaun Watson is back for the Browns and now has a full offseason, as well as some regular season experience from last year under his belt. The hope in Cleveland is that he’s caught up with the system and highly familiar with his weapons to make this a truly lethal unit from multiple standpoints.
The Browns added in enigmatic wide receiver Elijah Moore, who fizzled out with the Jets. Even though his New York departure was unceremonious, the Browns are thrilled with the unique abilities he adds to the receiver corps, complete with the dangerous Amari Cooper and unlikely perennial Bengals heartbreaker Donovan Peoples-Jones.
But, with all of the trench talk and offensive skill position chatter, this game very well may come down to the play of each team’s respective secondary.
Like his predecessor Joe Haden when he went up against the great A.J. Green, Denzel Ward has been an absolute thorn in the side of the Bengals. He has two pick-sixes against Cincinnati alone and has had success against some of the team’s best pass-catchers in their recent history.
Ward is recovering from a concussion, although he cleared protocol late this week. Greg Newsome II is no slouch on the other side either, and he appears to be hyper-focused for both this week and the entire year.
Cincinnati’s secondary is filled with athleticism and potential, as well as question marks. Chidobe Awuzie is among the league’s best corners, and he’s playing this week, but it’s his first game back in a year and a half after a tough knee ligament tear last year.
Cam Taylor-Britt flashed in limited fashion last year, and he is now being propelled into a starting role for the first time as a pro, as is fellow 2022 draft mate Dax Hill. Rookie Jordan Battle may mix in for some snaps, and newcomer veteran Nick Scott rounds out the safety group.
Talent is everywhere in the Bengals secondary, but inexperience and other concerns litter the group.
As we mentioned above, Week 1 is a crapshoot, particularly in today’s NFL, where starters and superstars get little to no preseason action. These two teams and the coaches are intimately familiar with each other, making this a formula for a potentially ugly contest.
One other important and under-the-radar facet of this one: The kicking game. The Browns made a last-minute cut-and-trade at the kicker position, shedding Cade York for veteran Dustin Hopkins.
Cincinnati employs one of the best in the league in Evan McPherson. “Money Mac” was perfect in the preseason, even nailing kicks from as far as 58 yards.
That’s probably where the difference resides this week.
Bengals 22, Browns 20