Hobson's Choice: Circle the opener

Q: If a fan could only afford one ticket this year, which game should they see?
--Randy, Dayton, OH

RANDY: As a guy who can't pronounce an 'R,' I'd say the Patriots Oct. 1. But if the Bengals want to be talking playoffs, it doesn't get any bigger than the first game of the season against Baltimore Sept. 10. Suffice to say those 21 days are the biggest of the season.

The Patriots are the sexy, ET People's Choice choice. With two of the best quarterbacks this side of Aquarius injecting their California cool into Paul Brown Stadium, not to mention Chad Johnson and Randy Moss strutting their offbeat Pro Bowl gigs, and Justin Smith and Robert Geathers trying to outsack free agency and Adalius Thomas, what's not to like?

Throw in Bill Belichick trading his Hall of Fame Xs and Os with one of the guys that could have beaten him out for Coach of the Year in Marvin Lewis and BILL disciples on defense and special teams in Chuck Bresnahan and Darrin Simmons, and it makes you wish Howard Cosell was around on this Monday night.

"Hello again everybody. This is Howard Cosell greeting you from the banks of the glittering Ohio River, where in the stadium named after the master the new master tries to restore order in the AFC in a game pitting two of the game's greats in the seamless Carson Palmer and the storybook Tom Brady ... "

But, alas, it will be the opener against the Ravens, also on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium that is going to have more of a say on how the division unfolds rather than the New England game.

Baltimore ran away with the North last year at 13-3. The Bengals won it the year before by jumping to a 3-0 start and losing only one division game. A major reason the Bengals have been in the hunt at the end in the last two seasons is because they won their openers, giving them the momentum to be 6-0 in the last two Septembers.

Their last September loss? Naturally, to Baltimore on Sept. 23, 2004 at PBS.

And this one has plenty of storylines, too, starting and ending with Marvin Lewis and Brian Billick. Lewis is 5-3 against his old head coach and that's been absolutely huge in this division of power. Before Lewis arrived, Billick was 7-1 against the Bengals.

Given that they've only won twice in the nine games they've played in the Ravens stadium, the Bengals need to get one here.

So, a slight edge to the Sept. 10 game. It simply means more.

We'll know everything there is to know about the Bengals at the end of those 21 days. Those are Big Boy games right out of the box against three big-time quarterbacks in Baltimore's Steve McNair, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, and New England's Tom Brady. In more than 300 NFL starts they have a combined winning percentage of .641.

Are the Bengals an elite team? On the cusp? In the mix? Against the window?

We'll know Oct. 2.

Q: What is the status of Levi Jones? Is he expected to be at full heath by training camp? The offensive line struggled last season with the injuries they had and I hope that Levi can come back at full health for all this season.
--Barry H., Paris, KY

BARRY: The two bigger injuries hanging over the team's heads look to belong to Jones and Johnathan Joseph, but Marvin Lewis has said they'll be ready for training camp. And he'll remind you that last year he was right on Carson Palmer.

Joseph appeared to suffer only a small foot fracture, believed to be a metatarsal, so he should be ready to go considering it's already been a month since he did it, and he's still got more than three weeks before he steps on the field at cornerback.

Jones' knee is a bit more of a mystery because he didn't work at all on the field this spring. But he's a hard worker, takes his rehab extremely seriously, and Lewis has said he expects Jones to be ready when the bell rings.

There's no doubt Jones is spending the six weeks before camp at his rehab facility near his Arizona home preparing a knee that needed arthroscopic surgery during the season.

You're right. His injury was extremely tough because when healthy he's simply one of the best pass protectors in the game at left tackle.

As well as rookie Andrew Whitworth played in his absence, he couldn't duplicate what Jones did in '05. Note what happened in the Dome against the Colts, and that comes from simply experience.

When Jones was healthy in '05, Carson Palmer had triple-digit passing figures, and it wasn't a coincidence. (Along with other things. Like a healthy Palmer, running back Chris Perry, and center Rich Braham.)

The other two headline injuries don't seem to be as much in doubt as they once were. Lewis has said Perry is headed to PUP (where he won't be able to practice until Oct. 16.) David Pollack wasn't around during the spring sessions and so little was said about him that it has to be assumed he won't play this year until further notice.

But Pollack has said enough publicly that you get the idea he hasn't given up on playing football yet. Particularly if it's as a defensive end.

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