Even our hardened panel of cynical scribes sees a classic opener brewing at 1410 S. Museum Campus Drive on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) with a pair of 10-6 teams squaring off and defense in the center of it all at Soldier Field.
The Bengals.com media roundtable is split down the middle, but everyone agrees the Bengals and Bears are going right to the wire. Two of the four picks are 24-23 with Brad Biggs of The Chicago Tribune offering the biggest spread in a 24-21 Cincinnati victory.
Biggs, who has been in the trenches at The Tribune for 13 years after also covering the Bears for the Chicago Sun-Times, gives the Bengals the edge because of their Fortune 500 Front working against Chicago's revamped and inexperienced offensive line. But he also admits it's "a great game out of the chute."
ESPN's estimable Chris Mortensen, who was on the inside long before he was called an insider, says Bengals-Bears is one of the five games on the schedule that no one knows what's going to happen. He's still not sure why he picked the Bears, since in his power rankings this week the Bengals are his highest AFC team and the Bears aren't in the top 10. Ah, homefield advantage.
John Mullin, who covered the Bears for two papers before moving to Comcast Sports and csnchicago.com, says the Bengals are the best team the Bears face in 2013. He also sees a one-point Bears victory given that their defense is at home.
Even Pete Prisco, the CBSSports.com pundit who picked the Bengals to win it all, doesn't give this club much room up in Chicago while predicting Cincinnati's one-point win. He's also going with defense and Geno Atkins and the gang controlling the front. As for the Bengals offensive line pitted against the formidable Bears front he says, "Guys like Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith, go play. It's your time."
Let's go around the table:
There are five games this week where, 'Wow, what's going to happen?'
Lovie Smith went 10-6 last year, had a winning record in Chicago, went to a Super Bowl and got fired. They made it clear it was because of the offense. Marc Trestman is going to get the offense right.
I fall into that category that Jay Cutler is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a lot of people, like Phil Simms, feel that way. Marc will bring out the best in Jay. They have weapons. Brandon Marshall. I think Alshon Jeffery will have a breakout year. They've got Martellus Bennett at tight end. You have to cover big receivers. They're going to distribute the ball. I think they feel internally if it is a Marshall-laden offense, it won't be successful.
I think another big hire for them is Aaron Kromer coaching the offensive line. He's one of the best guys in the league. I also think Paul Alexander for the Bengals is good. Kromer is going to make them better and that's really going to help Cutler.
When you look at the AFC, there aren't many teams that can get to the Super Bowl. The Bengals are one. The Broncos are one. The Patriots are one. Andy Dalton is never going to be Tom Brady, but I have fewer questions about the Bengals than I do the Patriots.
THE EDGE: Bears, 24-23. I think the Bears defense is going to be really, really good. It's at home. The offense is going to be good. Having a Matt Forte at running back, Jay Cutler, the offensive line is improved. Can it deal with the Bengals front? That's it, there's the game. It goes from a seven-step drop to a five-step drop passing game to get the ball out quicker and help those guys up front.
You don't have to be a student of the game to know there are questions about the Bears offensive line and no questions about the Bengals defensive line. That's why Marc Trestman is there. In my power ranking this week I've got the Bengals as my top AFC team because the Broncos don't have Von Miller and Champ Bailey. I don't have the Bears in the top 10 and yet I'm picking them. Something doesn't add up, but you look at the big picture and the Bengals are going. But it's one game at home. Not all the home teams win, but … I reserve the right to change my mind.
Starting two rookie offensive linemen is going to be a problem going against one of the best defensive lines in football. Having one rookie on the offensive line is hard enough, but two on one side ... I think they're probably going to be good players, but it's still their first NFL start. That's a tough matchup. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are going to get singled up at some point and they're going to win. Cutler is going to get hit and he's going to make some mistakes and that's the key to the game.
People don't realize how valuable Emmanuel Lamur is to the Bengals linebacking corps. Not a big name, but he can run and that's important. That hurts them and I'm sure the Bears are going to try and take advantage of that with Matt Forte. I like the Bengals putting safety Taylor Mays at linebacker. I think that's what the position is going to evolve into. Everybody is dropping down a position to get faster. The bigger safety who can't play safety anymore is going to be that cover linebacker. The big corner is going to free safety and the free safety is going to strong safety. The strong safety is going to linebacker. It makes sense to put Mays in there.
If Andrew Whitworth can't go and Anthony Collins is at left tackle, the Bengals are going to have to help him on Julius Peppers.
But the Bengals have a different dynamic on offense now. It used to be all A.J. Green with Jermaine Gresham every once in a while. Now they're really versatile with Tyler Eifert at tight end and Giovani Bernard at running back. Having the two tight ends against the Bears Cover 2 should really help them go down the middle. I remember early in the Houston game last year when they lost in the playoffs that BenJarvus Green-Ellis made a good run but it could have been more. He's a really good football player, but he can't run away. I remember, too, when Gresham popped open out of the middle and dropped some balls. Now they've got two guys in those spots they didn't have last year.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-23. Close. I think they force Cutler to make some bad throws and I really like the Bengals defense in that situation.
The Bears have made a lot of changes on their offensive line and it's not a great matchup for them with the Bengals offensive line. Kyle Long, their No. 1 pick, has had a really good preseason at right guard. Jordan Mills, their fifth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, got promoted to right tackle after the first preseason game. The Bears like him, but we're not talking about an SEC four-year starter. It's going to be interesting to see how it goes for them in the early part of the season.
For all the talk about Marc Trestman being a quarterback guru and fixing Cutler—and to a great degree their success depends on that—but I think Matt Forte is going to be the focal point of the offense. If you look when Trestman was the Raiders offensive coordinator when they went to the Super Bowl, running back Charlie Garner had 90 catches. Forte's skills are a perfect match for this offense.
The Bears should be excellent on defense. That's what leads this team. It was top five last year and all the parts are back except Brian Urlacher and they may get an upgrade there because at the end Urlacher wasn't the Urlacher we knew him to be. Their defensive tackle, Henry Melton, does what Geno Atkins does to a certain extent and at linebacker Lance Briggs is one of the best.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-21. This is a great game out of the chute. There are so many great matchups. A.J. Green gong against the Bears cornerbacks that both started in the Pro Bowl. I'm going with the Bengals because of their strength of their defensive front. It's going to be close. It comes down to can Cutler make the plays in the fourth quarter that he hasn't in the past.
The Bears think they're pretty good. Even though four of the five positions are new on the offensive line, the upgrades are substantial. They brought some swagger and there's a fun factor. Of course, that could change the first time Geno Atkins spins them around. The chemistry has gotten better with this group and I think Jay Cutler is better. His confidence level has gone up.
They keep talking about how old this defense is. Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman are all 30-plus. But they've not only gotten older, they've gotten smarter and better and there's such quality there that they are making the guys around them better. They really want to leave a mark on this franchise. You haven't heard of the nose tackle Stephen Paea or Henry Melton, the defensive tackle, because a lot of young players have been overlooked amid all the talk about how old the Bears are getting.
THE EDGE: Bears, 21-20. Cutler is talking about efficiency and ball security much more than he ever has and when I think of those two things I think of Andy Dalton. Not a game manager in a negative sense, but somebody who is not going to help you by throwing interceptions. I think these two teams are too good to let the other team run up a big score on them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Two teams coming off 10-win seasons going at it right out of the gate, but the Bengals should win for two reasons.
Head coach Marvin Lewis is starting his 11th rodeo. His special teams coordinator has been with him for all of them, his defensive coordinator for more than half, and his offensive coordinator for three seasons. Bears rookie head coach Marc Trestman brings an experienced NFL staff into this one, but a new one.
Plus, the Bears are starting a pair of rookies on the right side of the offensive line against arguably the NFL's best defensive line. It's certainly the highest-paid front, but it is games like this it is worth it. A tough opener in hot, hostile conditions against a solid quarterback.
How rare is that?
The Bengals have had just two rookie offensive linemen start Opening Day under Lewis, left guard Eric Steinbach in 2003 and it didn't happen again until Kevin Zeitler at right guard last year. The only time the Bengals have had two rookie Opening Day starters on offense was two years ago when wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton did it in Cleveland. But if you're going to start your own era, you have to start the game.
Since the Bengals figure to start the game with Tyler Eifert in a double tight-end set, Lewis will keep his string intact of starting at least one rookie on Opening Day.
(Here's the list: 2012 RG Kevin Zeitler; 2011 WR A.J. Green, QB Andy Dalton; 2010 WR Jordan Shipley; 2009 SLB Rey Maualuga; 2008 WLB Keith Rivers; 2007 TE Daniel Coats, CB Leon Hall; 2006 CB Jonathan Joseph; 2005 MLB Odell Thurman; 2004 WLB Caleb Miller, FS Madieu Williams; 2003 LG Eric Steinbach.)
So the Bengals should have the experience.
But they have two unsettling injuries with left tackle Andrew Whitworth probably out and converted safety Taylor Mays trying to fill the shoes of the team's best cover backer, Emmanuel Lamur, by learning his new position in a week.
Backup left tackle Anthony Collins is going to be making his 19th NFL start, but his first at left tackle since 2008 and his first-ever against Hall of Famer Julius Peppers. Collins is a steady guy who is quite athletic, but if some are talking about helping the young linemen in Chicago with short drops and quick passes, the Bengals may want to do the same thing to ease the pressure on Collins since they don't usually give their tackles much help.
And even though he probably won't start, Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard has a challenging debut in pass protection against an excellent defensive front that may not be as deep as the Bengals but has a formidable front four of its own.
With the Bengals being so good rushing the passer and so good covering in the back end, the best way for teams to attack them has been working the middle of the field with backs and tight ends, and with Lamur out that is really a big concern. And with Trestman known for using the entire field with his backs playing a key role and encouraging quarterback Jay Cutler to take the checkdown pass, the Bengals have to find an answer.
Dalton has had a rough go against top five defenses. In five full games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, his passer rating has reached the 70s just once and it's well documented what the Texans have done to him in the playoffs.
And while the Bears have two rookies up front, Dalton's two best complementary players, Eifert and Bernard, are also rookies.
But Dalton also has a knack for winning in tough situations with an 11-5 road record. Despite a 58.5 passer rating against the Steelers last December, he made the big throw when he had to and stayed away from the big screwup.
Dalton doesn't get enough credit for keeping the Bengals in games by staying away from the big miscue. He gets ripped for not taking shots, but after he threw 11 picks in the first eight games last season and was instructed to take care of the ball, he threw five the rest of the way and the Bengals finished 7-1.
With the Bears rep for stripping the ball and turning picks into touchdowns (eight last year), Sunday is the perfect spot for Dalton to show how he's grown into a distributor while honing his ability to navigate the Bengals through choppy waters.
And he should have the weapons that allow the Bengals to probe the elite defenses instead of reacting to them.
But in a tight, defensive game like this, forget Dalton and Atkins. This thing will most likely be decided by Jeromy Miles and Dre Kirkpatrick and Vinnie Rey and Cedric Peerman and anybody else who has to tackle returner Devin Hester and block for Bengals punt returner Adam Jones.
Kirkpatrick is going to have to come up big as he starts his sophomore season and shelves the horrific memory of the Dallas preseason game. He'll not only be the fourth cornerback, but he'll be taking the gunner spot opposite Miles covering Hester, the NFL's all-time punt returner with 12 touchdowns.
But covering punts was a huge strength for the Bengals last year and they led the NFL covering punts inside the 5 on their way to leading the league in the special teams top 10 major categories.
And the Bears are going to be worried about Jones's five career punt TDs. He didn't return a punt in the preseason, but special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons remembers 2011. Jones hadn't played for a year, spent the first six weeks of the season on PUP, practiced for a week, and went 63 yards the first time he touched it and would have had that sixth TD if he didn't pull a hamstring.
A tough opener. But if the Bengals do what they've done the past two years—go on the road with good defense and special teams and get one play and no big mistake from Dalton—they're 1-0.