So, how about them Bengals?
Three weeks into the 2013-2014 NFL season and the Cincinnati Bengals sit at 2-1 following an incredible 34-30 win against the Green Bay Packers. The game, being one of the craziest I have seen in a long time, was the first time in 14 years that a team gave up 30 consecutive points and, somehow, managed to pull off the win.
Not bad for everyone's favorite punchline.
So, how good is this year's team? Another one-and-done playoff team? A team that struggles down the stretch against equally talented teams or a legitimate AFC contender with... well... Denver and a bunch of other teams who have either looked less than their dominant selves (New England, Baltimore, Houston) or are pleasant surprises still seemingly deciding for themselves if they are for real (Miami, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Tennessee). Rather ironically, one of the most telling signs of this team's potential is how they play this weekend against the 1-2 Cleveland Browns in the "Battle of Ohio".
The Browns are coming off an impressive, unexpected showing last week on the road at Minnesota where they won, 31-27, on Jordan Cameron's go-ahead touchdown catch with 51 seconds left. Cameron finished with three touchdown receptions. Receiver Josh Gordon finished with 146 receiving yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions in his first game back after missing the first two due to suspension. Brian Hoyer, technically the third-string quarterback, threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw three interceptions, but the performance was still impressive nonetheless.
The real story last week though was that they did it all without former 2012, 4th overall draft pick, Trent Richardson, who was traded to Indianapolis for future picks. Following the trade announcement, many assumed the Browns would challenge for the top draft pick in April, but maybe Cleveland isn't as bad as people think.
The Bengals are 2-1 and looking like the deep, talented team we expected heading into the regular season. However, we can't get ahead of ourselves. Cincinnati still has issues on both sides of the ball. After the Richardson trade, many thought the Browns would be a gimme win, but with Cleveland, things are never that simple and now with key injuries in the Cincy secondary, the "Battle of Ohio" looks ever more like a trap game. If the Bengals can take care of business on the road against Cleveland, it demonstrates to me that this team is different from year's past where they lose a game everyone expects them to win. If the Bengals fall to the new-look Browns, it is clear that Cincy is still a ways away from contending with Denver for AFC supremacy. This week is a mental test for the Bengals.
Key Elements for the Bengals
- Andy Dalton - This is supposed to be the year we see Dalton take the next step and push into the upper echelon of quarterbacks, if he is ever going to, but to this point we have seen quality play, but nothing truly special. He turned the ball over in Chicago in Week 1 twice on interceptions, was erratic throwing the ball against the Steelers in Week 2 and played well with the pressure on last week, but still threw an interception as he made a bad decision and forced a throw to A.J. Green. The Browns defense is solid, ranked 7th in the NFL in total defense and 12th in pass defense specifically. This is a game where Dalton needs to be accurate, step into his throws and make things happen with, most likely, secondary receivers as Green will be matched up against shutdown corner, Joe Haden.
- The run game - Giovani Bernard has been lights out the past two weeks and, to be fair, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been solid. "The Law Firm" isn't as explosive as Bernard and should lose carries to the rookie as the season unfolds, but both backs make this offense better. That said, it will be interesting if Bernard can be a factor on the ground, and more importantly, in the air. It may come down to Bernard, Mohamed Sanu, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham's effectiveness in deciding on if the offense moves the ball well this weekend. I think Eifert could be an x-factor this week.
- A.J. Green - He is matched up on Joe Haden who is an underrated shutdown corner in this league. Green should manage a decent game with maybe a touchdown because the Bengals will give Green his chances, but don't expect him to take over the game and with Green limited, this game figures to turn into a defensive struggle.
- Defensive secondary - The rest of the Bengals defense should play well. They have played out of their minds in the early season, not only slowing down the Bears, Steelers and Packers offenses, but also by doing so, oftentimes, after an offensive turnover puts the opponent in good field position. The defensive line and linebackers figure to stick to their current form, but the secondary could be a different story with Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick and Reggie Nelson all likely to miss Sunday's game with hamstring injuries. So, expect to see Taylor Mays and some of Brandon Ghee, particularly in the slot. Ghee is a second-year player who seems to have a high ceiling as a corner, but has struggled to stay healthy long enough to really display that potential. This Sunday may be the perfect opportunity. Also, guess who is back in case Nelson can't go? You guessed it... it's old reliable... Chris Crocker. He is supposed to be backing up both Mays and Ghee according to Bengals.com.
Key Elements for the Browns
- Brian Hoyer - Hoyer may have been a relatively unknown guy going into last week, but he has some ability. He is from Michigan State and spent his first three seasons behind Tom Brady in New England. A couple brief stops in Pittsburgh and Arizona in 2012 and here he is. He isn't a guy you build a franchise around, but he can obviously air it out, and frankly, he scares me a little more than Brandon Weeden because he does have experience on his side. If the game is close at the end, don't count Hoyer out.
- Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron - I know Willis McGahee is supposed to take on a bigger role this week, so he is one to watch, if for no other reason, to see what he has left in the tank, but Gordon and Cameron are the weapons on offense. If Cincinnati can limit them, the Browns offense is finished, but it is easier said than done, especially this week. Gordon is a big, fast and incredibly talented receiver who has the ability to stretch the field and challenge any secondary, much less a secondary potentially missing Nelson, Hall and Kirkpatrick. Gordon could create problems. Cameron is the reason why losing linebacker Emmanuel Lamur to injury was such a big deal at the end of the preseason. Lamur is the Bengals best coverage linebacker, possessing the speed and size to matchup with the athletic Cameron, when he isn't on the IR that is. Now the Bengals will need to rely on Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict. I don't imagine we will be seeing much of James Harrison chasing Cameron around... hopefully.
This game will be close. Divisional games always seem to turn into defensive struggles and I fully expect this matchup to follow suit. If the Bengals offense can start fast, it may take some of the home crowd out of it and they could get an easy win as they are the more talented team, however, I think the Bengals score first and let the Browns hang around too long. I don't think Cleveland wins, but with secondary issues for the Bengals and what I assume will be a slow day for Green, I think we are looking at a close finish around 28-24 with the Bengals taking the win.
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