E. RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Some of those question marks straightened out into exclamation points for the Bengals in Sunday's opener that actually lived up to the hype.
Some familiar talking points showed up as well as their suffocating red zone defense that finished fifth in the NFL last season held the Jets without a touchdown three out of five times and carved out the 23-22 victory.
Playing in the emotional cauldron of 9/11 with a September 11 sky and the Freedom Tower as backdrops, the Bengals got a terrific outing from their wide receivers not named A.J. Green and young players in their nickel defense like slot corner Josh Shaw and defensive lineman Margus Hunt delivered game-altering plays.
And if there was any question about a hangover lingering from the Wild Card loss, that got straightened out, too.
"I think people look at last year, the Pittsburgh loss as a thing that was kind of damning to our team," said Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was about as happy as you'll ever see him after a win.
"I look at that Pittsburgh loss and say the reality is that we fought ourselves back into the playoffs to win a football game. I think this team has its ups and downs, but you find a way to win the game. That's all that matters. That was very much the same feel right here. We had to make a comeback in the end and defense had to make a stop. That's what you want to do to win football games in the league."
New Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese also showed what's old is new again. For those who wanted to know if Zampese would keep the creativity he helped develop under Hue Jackson, Zampese gave you a steady diet of unbalanced lines and a few tackles wide.
Not to mention wide receiver James Wright lined up as the Wildcat QB and Andy Dalton split out on one of the biggest plays of the day, a third-and-two from the Jets 14 down 16-13 late in the third quarter.
Zampese got an NFL vet performance out of wide receiver Brandon LaFell. LaFell, the New England refugee, had 91 yards and delivered the biggest offensive play of the game. With Dalton getting punished and staring at third-and-18 and a 16-13 deficit midway through the third quarter, LaFell did what he was supposed to do. He beat cornerback Marcus Williams for a 49-yard play that set up the only touchdown of the second half.
His first catch as a Bengal was also huge, a 21-yard play from the Bengals 25 on third-and-seven when he burned the blitzing defense on a shallow cross. They scored the next play on Dalton's 54-yard bomb to Green.
Hadn't that been the question. Could the non-Green wideouts win in one-on-one coverage?
"I think we caught them sleeping a little bit on (Brandon) LaFell, and that's good," said head coach Marvin Lewis of the 49-yarder. "That's the thing we saw from Brandon, is he's got great body control. He's a very accomplished NFL receiver and you saw him catching the ball going across the field, you saw him catching the ball on the sideline today, and he caught a couple deep balls. It was big."
Thanks to a slow start complicated by a ligament injury in his hand, LaFell hadn't done all that much in training camp. But when the bell rang, he was ready to take advantage of Dalton's quick snap.
"It was just tempo," LaFell said. "We used the tempo. Going fast. Going fast. He surprised me with the snap. They were trying to get their play call in. We just rolled with it. He threw a damn good ball."
Zampese also rolled out rookie Tyler Boyd and he came up huge in the last drive of the first half beating one-on-one. Boyd not only made a diving 14-yard catch down the middle to set up the fire-drill field goal at the gun that cut the lead to 16-13, he also made the biggest pay of the drive when he ran down the middle and drew a 25-yard pass interference penalty on veteran slot cornerback Buster Skrine that put the ball on the Jets 18.
"I was working him," said Boyd, who couldn't stop smiling after two catches for 24 yards in his debut. "I was getting past him and he kept pulling me back because I was getting leverage over the top on him.
"It was a lot of fun out there in my first NFL game. It was definitely one of the best times of my life."
It wasn't sophomore cornerback Josh Shaw's first NFL game, but it was one of his first playing heavy duty in the slot rotating with Chris Lewis-Harris with Darqueze Dennard (ankle) inactive. On the game's last play he showed why they believe he can do the job there. He's got the brains of a safety and the instincts of a corner and so when old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick tried to hit his veteran slot man, Shaw looked like he was wearing Eric Decker when he picked off the ball on the sidelines.
"We met as a secondary to talk about what play we were about to see," said Shaw, the Jets with no timeouts left.
"Sure enough. That's what it was I was. I was able to undercut it. I knew they had no more timeouts. They have to keep trying to advance the ball. The only way to do that with no timeouts was to get the ball out of bounds. Unless the ball was incomplete, of course. I just under cut the route. I knew it was going toward the sidelines and made a play on the ball. We repped it so many times in practice over the past few weeks, and it came at the end of the game. First time it came all game and it came on that last play."
But there is no last play unless Hunt blocks a 22-yard field goal after the Bengals blanketed Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall late in the first quarter. And there is no last play unless the Bengals hold the Jets twice in the fourth quarter, once from the 1 and once from the 8.
(Check out that stand early in the fourth and there are some man plays in there, like Geno Atkins knocking back Jets running back Matt Forte for a yard loss back to the 2 and then cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick hawking Decker on a fade on third down to force the punt.)
"Bend but don't break," said nose tackle Domata Peko. "They had about four plays on the goal line where they could have gone in for the touchdown. That's what shows our courage, our fight we have in this group and this team to stop guys when we have to stop them."
Peko and LaFell have been around. That would be 18 years of experience. Asked and answered on Opening Day.
"It's always hard to get that first road win," said LaFell, who won a ring with the Patriots. "Once you get that first road win, I think everybody kind of relaxes and starts to play football. They're not as tight. Now they're ready to play football."
Peko has watched his team win its last three openers. He watched them feed off the first two to reach the postseason.
"It's huge," he said. "You want to start out fast, not in a hole. And to be 1-0 against a good team that had a 10-6 record last year. An AFC team. Now we have to do it again next week."
With no hangover.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the New York Jets in week 1 of the regular season 9/11/2016