Highway to Heaven Eleven

Andy Dalton

Here goes nothing.

And that's exactly what 16 predictions are the week the NFL season opens. Nobody figured on Sept. 4 the last three seasons that the Bengals would go 9-7 in 2011, 4-12 in 2010, and 10-6 in 2009.

(Although we will say we predicted 10-6 on Sept. 7, 2009.)

So here goes nothing. Here's the Highway to Eleven (Wins).

SEPT 10-at Baltimore: Ray Lewis has slimmed down, Terrell Suggs is out with a torn Achilles, Ed Reed staved off retirement for another year, Jarret Johnson is in San Diego, and first-round pick Courtney Upshaw, the Man Who Would Be Suggs, has a shoulder ding.

The Ravens defense, the linchpin of the franchise, is in in transition. But the Bengals offense looks to be in transition, too, and it looks like it's going to take a week or two to get everyone in sync.

That's not to say the Bengals offense isn't going to be better than last year. It should be a lot better than No. 20 with another year for quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, as well as upgrades at guard and running back.

But the Bengals also have some daunting challenges this week. Their center is going to have a week with the team. Their two guards are making their first NFL starts at those spots. Their two running backs have seven preseason carries between them and none in the 30 days leading up to the opener. One of their starting receivers didn't have a catch last season.

This offense is going to click, but maybe not right away in the first game on the road. And where the Ravens have lost once since Nov. 22, 2009.

L, 0-1

SEPT 16-CLEVELAND: A good time for that running game to get into gear in a home opener against the team that finished 30th in the league against the rush and won't have its best run-stopper for at least the first six weeks of the  season in defensive tackle Phil Taylor, sidelined by a torn pectoral muscle. And linebacker Chris Gocong is gone for the year with an Achilles injury.

With Cleveland's best cover player, cornerback Joe Haden, staring at a four-game NFL suspension, Bengals wide receiver A. J. Green may be looking at expanding his role as Browns killer.

In his first NFL game last year in Cleveland, Green caught the longest game-winning TD pass by a rookie playing in his team's opener and against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium in November he set up Mike Nugent's winning field goal with 38 seconds left with a 51-yard grab on third-and-eight.

Rookie Brandon Weeden becomes the 11th different Browns quarterback to start against Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in Lewis's 19th game against Cleveland. Lewis's clubs are 9-9 against rookie QBs, but they're due. Houston's T.J. Yates beat the Bengals twice in the final 27 days of last season.

W, 1-1

SEPT. 23-at Washington: Another rookie QB, but at least Weeden has Trent Richardson. No one is quite sure who is going to end up being Robert Griffin III's go-to running back. And with Griffin the only weapon of note added to an offense that finished 14th in passing, he's going to have to do a lot on his own and the Redskins didn't beef up an offensive line that finished 25th running the ball.

Washington's best hope on defense is going to be the pass rushing of outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. So now's a good time to salute Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. According to profootballfocus.com, Whitworth allowed "Andy Dalton to be knocked down just six times and hurried another 16," in being rated a top five pass-blocking left tackle last season.

W, 2-1

SEPT. 30–at Jacksonville: There's an interesting synergy going on in this one with former Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski now calling the shots for the Jaguars opposing Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, friends from the G.A. ranks back in the day they broke into coaching in the Big Sky in the late '70s.

They worked against each other in practice for three seasons in Cincinnati but Zimmer gets the edge because Bratkowski has Blaine Gabbert, last year's lowest-rated passer in the NFL as a rookie.

Gabbert doesn't figure to be as overwhelmed as he was last year because of the lockout, but if he's as indecisive as he was last year, he won't make to the Bengals game because the Jags play the Vikings in the opener in The Dome, and Minnesota was second in the NFL last season in ringing up sacks per pass. Then the Texas come to Jacksonville with last year's fifth-best rush.

Then two weeks later here comes Bengals Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins against Jags center Brad Meester. According to profootballfocus.com, Meester has allowed the second-most number of combined quarterback sack, hits and hurries among centers in the last three seasons.

W, 3-1

OCT. 7-MIAMI: For the fourth straight week the Bengals play a team that many pundits pick to finish last in its division. For the second straight week they play a team with a new coaching staff. For the third time in four games they play a rookie quarterback. Not only that, a rookie QB that has the most anonymous collection of wide receivers in the NFL and a left side of the line intact from the one that gave up 52 sacks last year.

Making his return trip to PBS is Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle after 11 seasons as the Bengals secondary coach. So you know Miami will be exhaustively prepared and in the right place. The Dolphins simply won't have enough offensive juice for this one. Plus, it won't help the Dolphins that they come to Cincinnati the week after a West Coast game in Arizona.

W, 4-1

OCT 14-at Cleveland: The Browns will have Haden back, but Taylor is still going to be on the shelf. The Browns have some solid players on the defensive line, such as pass rusher Jabaal Sheard and run-stopper Ahtyba Rubin, and they helped give the Bengals a tough game at PBS last November.

Yet running back Cedric Benson had two of his three 100-yard games against the Browns last season and two of his longest runs, 39 in the opener and 33 in the second game. With the Bengals feeling they've upgraded at guard and running back, and with both spots more in sync at this point in the season, that may become a big part of this game.

Beyond second-year receiver Greg Little (his 61 catches were only behind Green among NFL rookies last season), the Browns have no threats. Unless you count Mohamed Massaquoi and his seven career TDs in three seasons.

W, 5-1

OCT. 21-PITTSBURGH: The perfect game for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to prove he can beat the big boys. Sunday night. NBC audience. The obligatory packed house at PBS expected.

The Steelers have dominated this series for the last 20 years because of both trenches, but the Bengals look to be reversing the trend, particularly when lining up the Cincinnati defensive line against Pittsburgh's beleaguered offensive line.

The Steelers are not only undergoing a change in offensive philosophy in which new coordinator Todd Haley is bringing back double tight ends and a fullback, but they're doing it with a tattered line that is missing injured rookie David DeCastro at right guard and has had to again call on Max Starks at left tackle when the other prized rookie, Mike Adams, got off to a poor start.

Plus, the Steelers defensive line simply isn't the same without Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton.

And once the Bengals get past cornerback Ike Taylor in the secondary, their speed in the slot with Andrew Hawkins and on the outside in Brandon Tate can cause matchup problems.

The Steelers have won four straight against the Bengals. Two against Dalton last year and two against Carson Palmer in 2010. Palmer never lost more than three straight to the Steelers. The Steelers come into it with a 10-day layoff after a Thursday night game, but it won't be enough to buck the trend.

W, 6-1

NOV. 4-DENVER: Talk about being due. The Bengals not only never beat John Elway (0-7), but have never beaten Peyton Manning (0-7). But the matchups seem to favor them prevailing this time.

Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin gave up eight sacks last season, which would enable a healthy Carlos Dunlap, and according to a profootballfocus.com study of the past three seasons, Denver's J.D. Walton allowed the NFL's highest percentage of quarterbacks sacks, hits and pressures on pass plays among centers. That's a nice matchup for Atkins.

And the Broncos are supposed to be counting on Manning getting plenty of mismatches with tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, but the Bengals are supposed to have safeties/cornerbacks like Nate Clements, Jeromy Miles and Reggie Nelson that can cover them.

The Broncos possess two game-wreckers in pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, and Cincinnati's lack of a true blocking third tight end was exposed against Miller in the second game of last season. But new Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio worked under Lewis in Baltimore, which should provide some insight.

Here's another reason to like the Bengals. Former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson, who called Oakland's offensive plays the last two seasons, is a Bengals defensive assistant that has thorough knowledge of Denver's defensive personnel.

W, 7-1

NOV. 11-N.Y. GIANTS: The longest winning streak in Bengals history comes to an end at the hands of the defending Super Bowl champs. Beating the Mannings back-to-back? But it's a close one since the Giants come to Cincy after two tough ones against the Cowboys in Big D and in Jersey against the Steelers.

Defensively, the Giants are what the Bengals hope they are becoming: Quick, penetrating pass rushers up front and solid cover people in the back end.

Look in the NFL lexicon and the word "solid." You don't win Super Bowls with mustard and gravy. In the last seven seasons the Giants have an NFC-leading 68 wins and this is about the time of year there's a tabloid crisis about Tom Coughlin's ability to coach and they come up with a late run that gets them to the playoffs.

L, 7-2

NOV. 18-at Kansas City: You always have to go with a game the Bengals are not supposed to lose. Here it is.

The Chiefs are going to be better, no question. But they've also got a lot of question marks. Stanford Routt comes over from the Raiders and he teams with corner mate Brandon Flowers. That duo finished 1-2 in the league last season giving up nine and eight TD passes, respectively.

Kansas City is counting a lot on former first-rounder Jon Baldwin being a threat opposite Dwayne Bowe at receiver after a rookie year he caught 23 balls and had one touchdown.

L, 7-3

NOV. 25-OAKLAND: It is the Carson Palmer Reunion Game and while Palmer is a huge competitor, you know he knows what's waiting for him isn't pleasant. And it's not so much a knowledge of the hostility that's simmering as he returns to a building that booed him in 2010 when he passed for his 20,000th career yard for the home team.

But he knows Zimmer is going to have all sorts of blitzes and pressures coming after him and that Hue Jackson knows the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Raiders offensive players.

Plus, Palmer and Jackson made beautiful music together after Jackson urged the trade, but with Jackson's firing Palmer isn't in the same offense that yielded two 400-yard games. And wide receivers Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford and Darrius Heyward-Bay aren't Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry.  

There are plenty of guys in the locker room that aren't happy Palmer asked for a trade after the 2010 season. But not as many as you think. He worked with none of the seven wide receivers and of the 53 players on the Opening Day roster, more than half weren't here with Palmer. In the churning roster word of the NFL, the number is already 28.

And the Bengals are on a roll. They had only one win ever over their former starting QBs in a reunion game before Dalton beat Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills last season at PBS. That came in 1983 when Ken Anderson beat Tampa Bay's Jack Thompson. They won't have to wait another 28 years.

W, 8-3

DEC. 2-at San Diego: The Chargers could blow up, particularly if their offensive line keeps falling apart, they find no answer for the departure of wide receiver Vincent Jackson, and a first-year defensive coordinator can't figure out how to turn around a unit that was last in the NFL in third-down conversions.

But this has been historically a tough trip for the Bengals and QB Philip Rivers is 2-1 against them. Since the 1981 AFC champs lit up the Chargers out there, 40-17, the Bengals are 2-6 in San Diego and are going to be coming off a rather emotional month at PBS with the QB battles of November.

L, 8-4

DEC. 9-DALLAS: Quarterback Tony Romo is a daunting challenge but the Bengals have some insider information with former Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman and Zimmer, a coach in Dallas for 13 seasons who still has a lot of ties in the Metroplex.

The clock has just about run out on Romo and his receivers, a talented combo that just can't seem to get on the same page. Take away the dropped passes and Romo had a completion percentage of 75. The Cowboys haven't been a great road team of late. They're turning to running back DeMarco Murray after last season they averaged 3.3 yards per carry in road games.

The Bengals were surprised the Cowboys gave a big-money deal to their left guard of the past three seasons, Nate Livings, and word out of Dallas is he's been solid. But the Bengals will take Atkins and Peko in that matchup and the two Cowboys tackles gave up a combined 19 sacks last season.

Edge, Zimmer.

W, 9-4

DEC. 13-at Philadelphia: Then the Bengals have just two days to get ready before getting on a plane to go play the Eagles on Thursday night. Dream Team or no Dream Team, that's a nightmare and no good can come of that.

The Eagles are going to put all that talent together this season because they had an offseason to put it together. The big question is if they can keep quarterback Michael Vick healthy. There is just one defender left from the day in 2006 the Bengals dared Vick to throw from the pocket when he was with the Falcons in the last game they faced him and he threw for three TDs for 291 yards with no picks on 19-of-27 passing.

L, 9-5

DEC. 23-at Pittsburgh: The good thing about that Thursday night game is the Bengals have 10 days before the next one, and the Steelers are coming off a game in Dallas. But the Steelers get a break when they play their last two games of the season against the Bengals and then the Browns at home.

Yet as Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard has pointed out, the Steelers are going to be at the end of a slightly tougher schedule than the Bengals. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh play the same opponents except for two. While the Bengals host the Dolphins and go to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh hosts the Jets and plays at Tennessee.

Also to keep in mind. Lewis has never lost three straight games in Pittsburgh. The Bengals lost back-to-back at Heinz in 2007 and 2008 and 2010 and 2011.

W, 10-5

Dec. 30-BALTIMORE: The Bengals get to replay the regular-season finale that they lost last season, 24-16. All the things that weren't quite in sync in the opener, the running game, the pass rush, the offensive line, should be running smoothly in a home game.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco hasn't had the greatest success throwing against Zimmer. If he doesn't have running back Ray Rice breaking long runs, he tends to have a long day. He had a 280-yard day against the Bengals as a rookie in '08 and torched them for 270 down there last season. But all told, he has seven TDs and 10 picks in eight games against Zimmer.

It's another game Hue Jackson can help Zimmer. Jackson spent Flacco's first two seasons in the league as his quarterbacks coach in the system the Ravens are still running.

W, 11-5.

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