Leading up to the 2018 NFL season, the Cincinnati Bengals were the team no one was talking about until all of a sudden people appeared to realize the Bengals were the team no one was talking about.
Now the talk is this: Are the Bengals the best team no one was talking about?
If not a definitive answer, a large clue to that answer should come Thursday night when the Bengals (1-0) meet their division rival Baltimore Ravens (1-0) in the home opener at Paul Brown Stadium. The NFL Network has the 8:20 p.m. telecast.
Cincinnati rallied to win 34-23 at Indianapolis last Sunday. Baltimore destroyed Buffalo 47-3 the same day. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was lights out, completing 25 of 34 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton wasn’t bad either, connecting on 21 of 28 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
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Yet most preseason prognosticators chose the Ravens to battle Pittsburgh for the top spot in the AFC North while the Bengals hoped to hold off the new-look Browns for third.
Perhaps that had to do with the Bengals’ off-season, however. While the league was hiring fresh coaching faces (Chicago’s Matt Nagy, Detroit’s Matt Patricia, etc.), or bringing back familiar ones (Oakland’s Jon Gruden), or trading marquee names (Khalil Mack), or signing big-ticket free agents (Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins) the Bengals did a whole lot of nothing.
To most everyone’s surprise, they re-signed head coach Marvin Lewis for a 16th season. They retained quarterback Andy Dalton for his eighth season. In a year when future star quarterbacks were all the NFL Draft rage, the Bengals selected a center out of Ohio State. Yawn.
“I think we’re going to show that we’re a better team than a lot of people are projecting us to be,” said longtime owner Mike Brown at the team’s annual pre-camp luncheon. “We’ll see if I’m right.”
Brown just might be right. Despite going 13-18-1 the last two seasons, the Bengals are talented. Though he enjoys little fanfare, player personnel director Duke Tobin is one of the better evaluators in the game.
As proof, take a look at the Bengals’ defensive line, which may rank only behind the Los Angeles Rams’ front. Geno Atkins is one of the top two or three defensive tackles in the league. Carlos Dunlap is one of the better pass rushing defensive ends.
Meanwhile, according to Pro Football Focus’ numbers, William Jackson III allowed the lowest catch rate (34.9 percent) last season of any cornerback in the 12 seasons the site has tracked such numbers.
The Bengals offense should benefit from coordinator Bill Lazor having a full off-season after replacing Ken Zampese two games into 2017. A.J. Green caught six balls for 92 yards at Indianapolis. And second-year back Joe Mixon looks to be in the LeVeon Bell mold. He can squeeze between the tackles and catch balls out of the backfield. Mixon rushed for 95 yards and caught five passes for 54 yards last week.
Speaking of Bell, the Steelers’ star remains AWOL from the defending division champs, who settled for a 21-21 tie with Cleveland last week. With Bell miffed over his contract and Ben Roethlisberger another year older (36), Pittsburgh’s window might be closing.
Is that wishful thinking for Who Dey Nation? Could be. The Ravens are no doubt smarting from losing out on a playoff berth last year by giving up a 49-yard Dalton to Tyler Boyd touchdown pass on a fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds left of the final game of the season.
Is Thursday a revenge game?
“Probably,” said Ravens Coach John Harbaugh on Monday. “How could it not be part of it?”
It’s definitely an important game, even for Week 2. The math mavens at fivethirtyeight.com pegged Bengals-Ravens as the “Most Important Game of Week 2” with the winner’s chance of making the playoffs jumping 15 percent.
A Cincinnati loss and it is same-old-same-old. A Cincinnati win, however, and more people will start talking about how the Bengals are the best team no one is talking about.
Ravens at Bengals
When: 8:20 p.m.
TV: NFL Network