The NFL season begins Thursday night. Ravens-Broncos. Joe Flacco. Peyton Manning. NBC. Al Michaels. Cris Collinsworth. Professional football is back and not a moment too soon.
That means, just north of here, opportunity knocks.
This could be the Cincinnati Bengals' year.
Baltimore may be the defending world champions but these are not the same Ravens.
Ray Lewis is retired. Also gone are Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Matt Birk and Anquan Boldin. Dennis Pitta is out for the season with an injury.
These aren't the Ravens, these are the Replacements.
Pittsburgh was 8-8 last year. The Steelers might be better this season, but they might not.
Free agent receiver Michael Wallace flew off to Miami. The defense has aged. Second-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley didn't seem a good temperamental fit for Ben Roethlisberger and Company. The Steelers could be stuck in neutral.
As for Cleveland, well, my Browns are always in rebuilding mode. There's another new owner (Jimmy Haslam). There's another new general manager (Mike Lombardi). There's another new coach (Rob Chudzinski, who was on the University of Miami staff with a young coach named Mark Stoops a decade ago). Cleveland should be improved, just not nearly enough.
Believe it or not, Cincinnati has not only the best talent in the division, but maybe the conference.
Why hasn't some team made Mike Zimmer a head coach yet? That's a mystery, though the coordinator's defense is not. Cincinnati was sixth in the NFL in total defense last season. The Bengals return all the important parts and then some.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins just signed a five-year contract extension. (Who says Mike Brown is cheap?) If Houston's J.J. Watt is the best defensive lineman in football, Atkins is a close second. And he has help around him, thanks to Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson.
Zimmer needs former Alabama star Dre Kirkpatrick to come through at cornerback. The Bengals' No. 1 draft pick in 2012 missed last season, but is finally healthy. He had a rough pre-season but should be fine once he rids the rust. He's on an accelerated learning curve.
The Bengals need to raise the bar on offense, an issue they addressed on draft day.
Sure, Cincinnati had a good if inconsistent tight end in Jermaine Gresham. They drafted another in Tyler Eifert out of Notre Dame. Sure, Cincinnati had a workhorse running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They drafted another back in Giovani Bernard out of North Carolina who is quick and can catch the ball out of the backfield.
The goal is to give Andy Dalton more weapons. The former TCU star guided the Bengals to the first round of the playoffs each of his first two seasons, but no further.
Houston beat the Bengals 31-10 in a wild-card game in 2012. The Texans beat the Bengals 19-13 in a wild-card game last season.
In the two losses, Dalton directed all of one touchdown drive.
Marvin Lewis understands the plight. In 10 years as the Cincinnati coach, Lewis has directed the Bengals to four playoff games. They've lost all four. Carson Palmer lost the first two — though, to be fair, Palmer blew out his ACL on the first play of the first loss — Dalton the last two.
That will change.
It says here the Bengals won't reach the Super Bowl. New England is my AFC pick. San Francisco is my NFC pick. One year after Baltimore's John Harbaugh raised the Super Bowl trophy after beating his brother, it will be Jim's turn to raise it when the 49ers beat the Patriots in New York.
It also says here, however, that Cincinnati will not only beat out Baltimore to win the AFC Central, but the Bengals will win at least one playoff game.
If a hurdle is to be cleared, now's the time. Opportunity knocks.
This week's games on TV
Ravens at Broncos, 8:30 p.m. (NBC-18)
Falcons at Saints, 1 p.m. (Fox-56)
Bengals at Bears, 1 p.m.(CBS-27)
Packers at 49ers, 4 p.m.(Fox-56)
Giants at Cowboys, 8:30 p.m.(NBC-18)
Eagles at Redskins, 7:10 p.m.(ESPN)
Texans at Chargers, 10:20 p.m.(ESPN)