Even though the NFL season kicked off Thursday night, the real action starts Sunday for most fans. Each week I’ll preview and then immediately recap the same game, and for Week 1, I’m choosing the Bengals vs. Bears. Two teams that have playoff aspirations, both Chicago and Cincinnati enter the season with improved offenses and stellar defenses.
After years of being bullied in the AFC North by Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Bengals are now the toughest and most talented team in their division. Getting former Steeler James Harrison will add an intangible factor to this fierce defense that Cincinnati has lacked during the Dalton-Green era. But the focus of the Bengals D will be All-Pro Geno Atkins.
Atkins is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He finished last year with 12.5 sacks and 54 tackles. With Denver’s Von Miller suspended, Atkins is the second best pass rusher in the AFC, behind only J.J. Watt and his elbow brace. The Bears big acquisition this summer was signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod to a 5 year/$35 million deal. Bushrod will be under immediate pressure to prove his worth when he lines up across from Atkins.
This game will show an interesting contrast at QB. One quarterback, Dalton, often plays as little more than a game manager. While the other, Jay Cutler, should probably do more game managing. With these QBs facing very tough defenses to start the season, expect interceptions from each side.
However, both QBs are very similar in that there’s no secret who their favorite targets are. Brandon Marshall finished second in the league with 194 targets while A.J. Green was fifth with 164. Also, both Chicago and Cincy are banking on second-year players emerging as number two wideouts. Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu caught 16 passes for four touchdowns lat year, while Alshon Jeffery had 24 receptions and three TDs for the Bears. These two will have chances as Green and Marshall demand double coverage.
The offensive upgrades I mentioned earlier both come in the form of tight end. The Bears signed Martellus Bennett and the Bengals used a first round pick on Tyler Eifert. While Bennett will be the only TE for the Bears on most plays, Eifert will share work with Jermaine Gresham in two tight end sets, much like the Patriots have done the last few years.
Key Matchup: Leon Hall vs. Brandon Marshall
Hall has been under the radar as a great cover corner, and as part of a stacked Bengals secondary, he will get Marshall. Hall gives up six inches in covering Marshall, but if he can stay on him, he as a chance to bait Cutler into some poor throws. Cutler will throw to Marshall plenty, and Hall knows this. If Marshall is unable to get going, the Bears offense will stall.
Not too many decisions to make here. You’re obviously starting Marshall and Green as your top receivers, and both Bears and Bengals team defenses are good plays this week. Start Bears RB Matt Forte as well. He’s a high end RB2.
Prediction: Bears 23, Bengals 19
Defense will rule the first half of this one, as neither offense will get in the red zone early. The offenses will find some rhythm later on, and Devin Hester will give the Bears a field position edge. Cincinnati’s running game will fail to get going. Cutler will make a few great throws late, and Dalton won’t. The Bears earn their fourth straight Week 1 victory.
Game is at 1 p.m. ET on CBS. Check back here after the game for my recap.