The very definition of Opening Day sums it up.
No one knows what you're opening up Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the Bengals face the Raiders at the O.co Coliseum. A Pandora's Box? A hornets' nest? A closet door or bay window?
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable has a pretty good idea, though. Three local observers of the two clubs are going with the more experienced Bengals in a tight one in front of the infamous Black Hole crowd that can see a light at the end of a grim 13-year tunnel.
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst beginning his 30th unvarnished enthusiastic and candid season in the booth, thinks the Bengals are going to win one for Hue Jackson. Jackson, the Bengals offensive coordinator, went through a stunning firing by the Raiders four years ago despite going 8-8 in his first season. Lapham believes players on both sides of the ball have rallied to him this week in a game that needs emotion after a four-and-a-half hour flight to the Coast.
Paul Dehner Jr., the Cincinnati Enquirer beat man in his second season quarterbacking the mushrooming coverage, opts for the Bengals' stability in the face of yet another Raider re-boot.
ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, the long-time AFC West observer (he covered the Bengals' soul-snapping 2006 Christmas Eve loss in Denver), is skeptical of the Oakland secondary covering the Bengals' vast deployment of targets. But he thinks the crowd keeps them in it.
Let's go around the table, leading off with Lap, the one guy in the building Sunday that's got more experience than Raiders 18-year veteran safety Charles Woodson.
The Bengals do a great job winning on the road, Andy Dalton with 19 wins. They've had a solid defense for several years and they can run the ball. Those things travel, rather than having a spread offense based on a lot of communication. Those things have done well for them.
I think Hue Jackson means a lot to the guys on this team. Not just offensive players, but defensive players. He's been in all their meeting rooms. The big danger is making sure they're not overhyped and he's not over hyped. You have to play with a controlled rage. They know the game is important to him. I don't think there'll be a question of them matching intensity like there was in Tampa a few weeks ago. The intensity will be matched, so it comes down to execution. Who takes care of the ball? Who puts the team on a long field?
They have to be ready. Oakland defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., has these guys playing like wild men. Not only in the Seattle scheme, but attitude. They're ripping at the ball, their gang tackling. Everything the Seahawks do. Mack is a man at defensive end. In the base defense, where he lines up is predicated on the call in the huddle. But in nickel, I think he tries both tackles.
Woodson is still playing at a high level. He still tackles his butt off. He brings people down by himself. He hits them high and he's got his martial arts collapsing their legs. It's like what Marvin Lewis did with Rod Woodson in Baltimore after all those years at corner in Pittsburgh they kicked him inside to safety. They see the field, have great ball skills and that's what Woodson is giving the Raiders now. You have to watch out for him.
The Steelers have the Killer Bs on offense; the Raiders have the Killer Cs. Quarterback Derek Carr, wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Carr is a quick-release guy. They're running more spread. He ran the spread at Fresno and the new coordinator, Bill Musgrave, is coming from Chip Kelly in Philly. It will be interesting if they go up-temp like the Eagles do. The Bengals have to adjust to that. Cooper is their A.J. Green. Crabtree is their Mohamed Sanu. Big strong guy with the ball.
The big key is their offensive line. If the Raiders get their hands on you, they'll stop you. I would not be a sitting target. These guys don't have quick feet. They're plodders. But they're big and strong. I think you have to move around if you're the Bengals and to me that's the big question. Can Oakland keep Carr clean?
The biggest matchup for me is Raiders left guard Gabe Jackson vs. Geno Atkins. Jackson is their best offensive lineman on tape. A big, powerful guy. If Geno can dominate him like he has other guards in the league and he starts messing with their best lineman, I've been there. It's like, 'What do you do?'
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. The key factor minimizes my fear that they go out there flat. They know the game means the world to Hue. They will go out there and compete their butts off. Ken Norton Jr. has the Raiders doing all the stuff Seattle is doing. Ripping at the ball, jumping on piles. If they want to do that, street brawl them. I think it's going to be like an AFC North game. Their defense is built with huge tackles, speed rushers, and small linebackers that can run. It's AFC North game.
There are so many variables this time of year. I can think back last year vs. Baltimore. The Bengals owned the game for the most part. They came out and did the things you wondered they could do. The defense was spectacular, the offense moved the ball. You just don't know. The first game is always an eye opener. The thing they have on their side this month is continuity.
They should have a better feel for what they're doing out there. The Raiders are still putting a lot of pieces together, draft picks, young players that they're mixing in. It's only Carr's second year, Cooper's first game. The Bengals have the majority of their starters back and you have to give them the advantage there.
The mismatch with the Bengals wide receivers is a big part of the game. At least going off credentials, that's what you would expect. A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones should get a lot of one-on-ones. God love Charles Woodson at safety, but at year 18? We do know Oakland can rush the passer. They've got a lot of young stars there. But that was the Bengals' strength last year. Protect the quarterback. Get the ball out of the quarterback's hand fast. Let the other guys win their battles. In theory that should set up well for them.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-20. Tough place to go play on the road. Their comfort in a close game going against a team with a lot of young players will end up being the difference, but I expect a close game.
They're very excited out in Oakland. Of course, they're always excited. But this time they've got a veteran NFL head coach in Jack Del Rio. Their last guy, Dennis Allen, had been a defensive coordinator for one year. Their quarterback is coming off a pretty good rookie year and they've got young stars like Khalil Mack on defense and Amari Cooper on offense. Now there seem to be building blocks in Oakland.
They do play better at home. They've won their last three home games. It's a hard place to play. The fans are really into it. There's a connection with them and the team when the game is going well. I would think the Bengals want to come out fast, take the crowd out of the game, and make them think, 'Here we go again.'
The Raiders' secondary against the Bengals' big-play ability could be what's the difference in the game. Their No. 1 cornerback was a seventh-round pick (T.J. Carrie) last year. He might turn out to be good, but he'll have his hands full this weekend.
We don't know if Mack is going to have help. There have been glimpses of that. Defensive end Mario Edwards, a second-round pick out of Florida State was all over the place in the preseason with 2.5 sacks. That's real if it translates. But, really, we don't know anything yet about the Raiders.
Carr didn't have a great preseason. There are some accuracy issues. He hasn't had great success 10 yards or more down the field. He has better weapons this year with Cooper and the other wide receiver, Michael Crabtree. They will have moments in every game offensively. They've had trouble finishing drives. It's tough to say what their strength is. Offense or defense? No one knows.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-16. They're the better team. They've been better the last several years. The Raiders are very excited about starting at home. They've only got one player who can't play a backup defensive lineman. They know it's a tough opponent. I don't think they'll get blown out. But I expect the Bengals to win.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Opening Day element cancels out the Karma Factor and there is a lot of that going around.
The Bengals have never won in Oakland going back to that first fall of 1968, when Nixon and Dewey Warren Were the One. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' two trips to Oakland have ended bitterly with tie-breaking field goals by Sebastian Janikowski in the last half-minute. And there's nothing like a long trip to the Coast to even the playing field.
But the Bengals seem to have all the answers this trip. The flight out was delayed by about an hour-and-a-half, but buoyed by the A.J. Green extension. They got there in plenty of time to work out at The Coliseum on Saturday morning, getting a feel for the weird baseball field arrangement. None of the players are left from the '03 team that played there in September.
And, the Bengals are going more up-tempo in practice the day before games, which should help them match the energy the Raiders are expected to bring.
Plus, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton are the most productive duo in the game in the first four years of a career while Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has never thrown a pass to Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree. Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack is a beast, but he's in his second season while tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith have combined for 191 NFL starts.
Then there is the coaching factor. The Bengals have an established staff with Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther in their second seasons and while Raiders new coach Jack Del Rio has established a veteran crew, it is their first game together.
But Lewis has been in this situation before and it's not a lock. This is the seventh time he's faced a new staff in the opener and the Bengals are 3-3. The road is a leveler and, like Lewis said this week, the coaches aren't playing.
The Raiders are going to spread it, so can they protect Carr? Profootballfocus.com rated Donald Penn the sixth best left tackle in pass protection last year while right tackle Austin Howard makes the move from right guard, where he was rated 19th on the pass last season. So they're formidable and seasoned. Penn has made 124 straight starts and Howard gave up just two sacks when he started every game for the Jets in 2013 at right tackle.
As for Lap's big matchup, Raiders left guard Gabe Jackson has a high overall PFF rating of 27th, but he's rated 72nd against the pass and that's Geno's strength. There's the matchup across the front Lap is talking about. Speed vs. bulk and with the Bengals planning on playing a bunch of linemen, that could carry the day.
The other huge matchup is obviously the Bengals' seasoned receivers against the Raiders' inexperienced corners. When he was a seventh-round rookie last year, T.J. Carrie finished a solid 49th in PFF's CBs ratings (one ahead of Terence Newman) and gave up just one TD pass while D.J. Hayden finished 64th and allowed six scores and a passer rating of 121. They're both young, though, with 14 combined NFL starts.
As much as we love and respect Woodson as a Hall-of-Fame player (and we remember his two picks and one score for Green Bay against Carson Palmer in '09), he was rated 53rd among NFL safeties in pass coverage. So the Bengals should be able to do damage in one-on-one situations.
It won't be easy. It will be a typical Opening Day road grind, especially on The Coast. Indeed, both Green-Dalton Opening Day wins have been fourth-quarter comebacks on the road with Green catching the long daggers late in Cleveland and Baltimore.
Hey, Green caught the late winner in his first NFL game from backup Bruce Gradkowski after Dalton hurt his hand. And it was Gradkowski that beat the Bengals late the last time they came to Oakland in '09 and . . . .
Enough karma. The Bengals finally get one in Oakland with another gut job.