We'll start this week's game preview with a dubious distinction, which can only be labeled as Bengal-esque: the Cincinnati Bengals have never won in the city of Oakland. Ever.
Sure, they have beaten the Raiders in Cincinnati and in Los Angeles, where they might be returning at some point in the near future, but the fact they can't get it done in one particular venue just adds to a franchise resume filled with demons left to slay.
To the team's credit, they have begun chipping away at some of the ugly marks in their historical DNA, as evidenced by their beating of three of the best NFL quarterbacks in 2013 and 2014 (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning). Let's also not forget the team bucking their irritating trend of making superstars out of first-time starters with their embarrassment of Johnny Manziel late last year.
But, that was then and 2015 is now. In a year the Bengals have much to prove after four straight premature playoff exits and five over the past six years, they start their quest to redemption with a test that may seem easy on paper, but history and a changing of the guard in the Raiders organization makes it tougher than it seems on the surface.
Jack Del Rio, a longtime friend of Marvin Lewis, is the most recent usurper of the throne that is the Oakland head coaching carousel and is attempting to bring back accountability and toughness which had last been seen over a decade ago with Jon Gruden. It's not an easy task for Del Rio, but he has had success in the NFL as a player, coordinator and head coach before.
There has been a bit of turnover at the roster, and none more noticeable than at wide receiver. After injuries made his promising career turn a bit disappointing, Michael Crabtree moves across the bridge from the 49ers to the Raiders to add a veteran presence. The team also took exciting top-five pick Amari Cooper to give second-year quarterback Derek Carr as many weapons as possible.
Carr was impressive as a rookie, even with a deficit at offensive talent around him. He can move, make a lot of throws and take care of the football quite well. It's hard to see him having a "sophomore slump" with the aforementioned receiver additions, but the running back stable comprised of Latavius Murray, Roy Helu, Jr., and Taiwan Jones, he might need to do more than he had to in 2014. Carr will also have a handy little weapon to use as a security blanket in the versatile fullback, Marcel Reece.
Last year, the Bengals shot off to a quick 3-0 start and some national pundits were talking Super Bowl. Then, injuries hit the team in a major way and the rah-rahs quieted even though they scraped together ten wins with duct tape and stents. This year, they are once again the forgotten squad amongst the media darlings of Indianapolis, Green Bay, New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and a slew of other teams they feel will leapfrog the Bengals into the playoff picture.
We've asked the question all offseason on how much better the Bengals are in 2015 from the year prior. Michael Johnson and Pat Sims have been added to bolster a defensive line that underperformed last year, but the cast is largely the same on both sides of the ball. Is just being healthy just enough for the Bengals to become an elite NFL franchise by entering the postseason once again?
Aside from the new exciting duo at wide receiver for the Raiders, there comes an interesting look with their pass rush. Justin Tuck mans one defensive end spot, while second-year stud Khalil Mack mans the other after spending his rookie year as a hybrid outside linebacker. Now, Oakland is trying to find a loophole in the league's turbulent discipline system by bringing in troubled, yet uber-talented edge rusher, Aldon Smith. He's sure to face a suspension at some point, but he might just see the field on Sunday while Roger Goodell tries not to foul up another ruling. All three can bring problems to a top-five offensive line the Bengals trot out on the field weekly.
There are three young Bengals players to watch as they grab more spotlight than they had in previous years. On offense, Jeremy Hill will be the primary back after he took the NFL by storm the last half of 2014. Will the increase of carries prove to be the remedy to an inconsistent offense? Or will it be Tyler Eifert, who has immense pass-catching talent, but has been mired by injury and a burying on the depth chart. On the defense, Dre Kirkpatrick will have a big task in covering Crabtree and/or Cooper in his first season as a starting corner for the team.
Off-field stories might be the true headliners of this game which has been getting little fanfare this week. The first is a feel-good story as the Bengals have kept their superstar wide receiver, A.J. Green, for the next half-decade after he inked a big contract extension. The other has to be the return of Hue Jackson to Oakland after he was thrown off of the same carousel Del Rio is clinging to at the moment.
Raiders fans are still grumpy with Jackson after he engineered a move of desperation by trading for then-disgruntled Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. Jason Campbell, who had his own stop in Cincinnati, was injured for the year and Jackson called Cincinnati about Palmer, who was sitting on his couch as the trade deadline neared. Ultimately, the result was Palmer in Oakland for two seasons, with Jackson being fired after the first, and the Bengals netting Kirkpatrick and Giovani Bernard with the Raiders' picks. Of course, the Bengals also took back Jackson as an assistant coach to make the slap-in-the-face complete.
A couple of weeks back, Robert Klemko of the Peter King-run MMQB website, noted in his Training Camp visit that the Bengals were "Hungrier than I've ever seen them". It's this hunger they will need to use to get off the schneid in the East Bay area (though, of course, it's on the West Coast). Everyone is hungry at 0-0, so overall roster talent will likely win the day.
Bengals 23, Raiders 16
AC -- Trying not to drop the baton handed over by Mojokong.