The new-look Bengals, complete with a rebuilt quarterback, an overhauled defense, a lethal kicker and massive changes sweeping across Paul Brown Stadium's game day landscape, stare at a familiar figure from their past during Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) against an estimable foe.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable is well aware of how Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer suffocated quarterbacks great and small in this building during his reign as the Bengals defensive coordinator.
But during frequent hydration breaks in preparation for what could be the hottest NFL game in Cincinnati history, The Table is split when it comes to quarterback Joe Burrow's return from injury matched up against the splashdown of Zimmer and Paul Guenther, another former Bengals defensive coordinator and now Zimmer's senior defensive assistant.
Two of the talented mainstays of the Bengals media contingent, The Athletic's Paul Dehner, Jr., and Local 12 digital columnist Richard Skinner, are siding with the Orange dawn. A lot of Opening Days go into their calls. Skinner's first opener was the 1987 Jerry Rice Affair at Riverfront Stadium for Maysville, Ky.'s Ledger Independent. Dehner checked in for CBS Sports to chronicle the opening of the Dalton-Green Bengals in 2011.
The other half of The Table opts for Zimmer's hard-bitten resume after an offseason he's restocked last year's devastated defense. Alex Marvez, the easy-listening host from Sirius NFL Radio who broke into league charting Bengals bomber Jeff Blake's big hits from openers during the '90s, thinks the Bengals are better but Minnesota is more established. Chris Thomasson, the relentless veteran Twin Cities pro sports scribe for St. Paul's Pioneer Press, sees the Vikings' experience carrying the day.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first:
The Vikings looked dreadful in the preseason, but they were a team that didn't have key players, some due to injury and some were rested throughout the preseason. It will make a big difference on offense having running back Dalvin Cook back, wide receiver Justin Jefferson back and wide receiver Adam Thielen back. Thielen played only four snaps while the other two guys didn't play at all in the preseason. As Dalvin Cook goes, the Vikings go. I think that's going to be a huge difference.
The Vikings have issues with depth, but that might become an issue more later in the season when they have some injuries and what have you. We'll see if it's a concern someday. At tight end they didn't bring back Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith is out for the season with a knee injury and they just picked up two guys, one in a trade and one off waivers. Plus, the No. 3 wide receiver situation is still in flux. The offensive line has an issue with Rashod Hill at left tackle. But on offense they should be much better with Cook.
On defense they sat out leading guys in the preseason in left end Danielle Hunter, free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Patrick Peterson and linebacker Anthony Barr. They're all back Sunday. If the Vikings had a tougher opening game, like Green Bay last year, I'm wondering if they might have tried to get some of their regulars more snaps.
THE EDGE: I think they probably have the horses to beat Cincinnati because the Bengals are still finding their way and Joe Burrow played just three preseason snaps, so they have to get acclimated themselves. Although the Bengals are improved, I think the Vikings can get by with maybe having some guys a little rusty. VIKINGS, 26-21.
The return of Mike Zimmer. And the return of most of his team. This is what makes the Vikings a dangerous team because when they're healthy they have difference makers at every level of their defense. And I like the offense. Even though tight end Irv Smith is out, there's a lot to like on what they're doing on that side of the ball, as well. The Vikings are probably one of those bounce-back teams that didn't make the playoffs last year that finds a way to get in this year.
The Bengals are better. We're just all keeping our fingers crossed that the team's thinking on the offensive line is going to pay off. It's just not protecting Joe Burrow, but it's the running game. How is Joe Mixon going to affect what this team does? Ja'Marr Chase will obviously be better than what this preseason was with his inconsistency. Young team with players stepping up. I just think we all want to see it. We all want to see Joe Burrow take those snaps and not get hit as much as he did last year. That's a tall task when they're facing this Vikings defense.
THE EDGE: At this point the Vikings are further along as a team because of the veteran players they have. But I think we'll see some things from the Bengals we'll like in this game. VIKINGS, 26-18.
Is Zim going to do it again at Paul Brown Stadium? How many times have we seen him befuddle the greatest? The tip of the hat from Rodgers. Brady in the rain. We've seen him do it to even the greatest quarterbacks. And everybody hopes Burrow will be great, but there are obviously unknowns.
How comfortable is he going to be in his first game back? Ja'Marr Chase's first game. Who knows? How quickly can Burrow and the offense find some explosion, find some way to move the ball consistently against the guy that certainly knows how to stop it and has his horses back? Last year, the Vikings defense was poor because they were just way too injured. No one can keep up with that. He's got his pieces back now and that can be scary.
THE EDGE: I think the Bengals are the standard team people don't expect a lot from at home. A home underdog against another team with some flaws and you can surprise them and I think Evan McPherson can be a weapon at the gun. The last two years they probably would have won both openers if they had McPherson instead of Randy Bullock. They could have won both. BENGALS, 24-21.
It comes down to Burrow deciphering Zimmer and how sharp is he going to be. We're all expecting him to hit the ground running, right? He played all of three preseason snaps without taking a hit. How is he going to react to the first hit? Maybe he react like he knows it was coming, he was ready for it and he wants it like he's talked about. Or maybe it jolts him a little bit and he starts seeing ghosts. I don't think that's the case, but I've got to see it first. This guy's a human being coming off of knee surgery since he went down. I need to see that.
What helps Joe deciphering Zimmer is if the run game has changed to the point of you're going to really effective and Joe Mixon is going to be really effective and you're going to get him legitimate touches. You're going to give it to him 18 to 20 to 25 times to take pressure off Joe Burrow and not let him drop back 40-plus times a game against a Mike Zimmer defense. I thought they dropped back Joe Burrow too many times last season and exposed the guy to too many hits. You can't do that in this game. I don't care what the defense is showing you. I think you have to occasionally line up and say, I know you're lined up to stop the run, but by golly we're running the ball this year and we're going to run it at you.
THE EDGE: It's going to be a close game. The Bengals played pretty well the last two openers and arguably should have won them and could have if they made those late kicks. I think rookie Evan McPherson is truly a weapon this year. It is Justin Tucker-like. When you get across the other team's territory, you're thinking we've got three points in the bag, now what else can we do to get seven and let's make sure we get the three. It starts here. I think the kid puts himself on the map quickly with at least one 50-yarder, so let's make it fun. Big day for McPherson. Four field goals, including 55 at the gun. BENGALS, 26-24.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If the Bengals are to win the opener, we'll see their season-long trends begin Sunday:
BENGALS MVP: Burrow is back with all the accompanying swagger and intangibles.
BENGALS OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RB Joe Mixon: Zimmer and Guenther have a slew of cagey veterans in the back seven and down through the years that formula has made it ugly for some very good passing games. The Bengals can take the load off Burrow this game and during the season by giving it to Mixon for the Bengals' first 100-yard rusher in an opener since 2011, back when Cedric Benson and a Zimmer defense backed up Andy Dalton's winning debut in Cleveland. Mixon is on the verge of reminding people he's one of the best and most influential players in the AFC North.
BENGALS BEST OFFENSIVE ADDITION: RT Riley Reiff: Zimmer loved what this guy's toughness did for the mindset of the Vikings offensive line before the Bengals got him in free agency. On Sunday against his old mates, Reiff has just the kind of veteran presence the Bengals have lacked for years up front and he gets to display it right away against Danielle Hunter, a 14.5 sacker in each of the last two seasons before not playing last year.
BENGALS DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RE Trey Hendrickson: The Bengals made him their richest free agent ever not only to sack the passer, but to also set the edge against the run and that's a must Sunday against the Vikings' punishing wide zone. Hendrickson, who looked really good in the preseason, gets left tackle Rashod Hill, a guy that has started a game in each of the last two seasons.
BENGALS BREAKTHROUGH DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: MLB Logan Wilson and LB Germaine Pratt: Early on in training camp linebackers coach Al Golden called Pratt arguably his most improved player and Wilson was also having quite a camp. Both played well in the preseason games. Wilson ripped out a turnover in Washington and against Tampa Pratt was flying downhill in the first series that stoned the running game. That has to get done today. Cook is an absolute beast and they can't let him control the day. A Bengals defense that has allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL the past three seasons gets a shot right away to prove no more of that.
BENGALS ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: K Evan McPherson: It's going be a hot, grinding tractor pull of a game. A typical opener full of rust, adrenaline and adjustments and surprises. Something like 26-23ish where field goals are at a premium for both sides. The kicking game has been a thorn in Zimmer's side during his eight seasons in Minnesota. McPherson can show why it's a stunning new plus for a team resolved to catch an unsuspecting league napping.