The Bengals.com media forum has emerged to call Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium opener against the 49ers (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530) and a clear-cut majority picks the Bengals to win a not so clear-cut game.
Mike Lombardi, who lends the NFL Network a load of credibility as a former NFL personnel decision-maker at several stops, sees a low-scoring day with the Bengals winning by a Mike Nugent field goal or so. Like the rest of the panel, he's a little uneasy about the Bengals receiver situation but in the end he thinks Cedric Benson and the Bengals defense carries the day.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen, who reprises his riveting 1980s Sunday notes column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution via TV on the daily NFL 32 show on ESPN2 at 6 p.m., gives the Bengals the edge simply because he doesn't see Jim Harbaugh's new regime getting enough traction yet to coax Alex Smith to a road win.
Matt Maiocco, a long-time scribe covering the Niners now at CNSBayArea.com, also backs the idea that San Fran is going to have tough sledding on the road, where the Niners have won four non-division games during the entire stretch of Marvin Lewis's run in Cincinnati.
The lone 49ers pick comes from the estimable Mike Sando, one of the pioneer bloggers at the Tacoma News-Tribune now doing it for ESPN.com with the NFC West as his topic. He sees the Niners getting back to the basics with running back Frank Gore and asserting the kind of physicality Harbaugh used to transform Stanford.
The key when you play the 49ers is always to make them one-dimensional. You want to make Alex Smith beat you and their receivers aren't at a level where they can win consistently.
You have to stop their running game and control (tight end) Vernon Davis. The Bengals should have done a better job against the run in Denver. They've got a physical front seven when they play hard and are tough to run on. There are teams like Bengals, though, that play down to the level of their opponent when they think they should win. I think they'll play better defense this week.
The 49ers have a tremendous front seven. If you can control them, you can make throws against them. But you have to be physical against them. The Cowboys had problems doing that last week and quarterback Tony Romo got killed. The Bengals should be OK. They pretty much have been able to run the ball on anybody they want, but they have to mix it up and take shots on the outside. The 49ers do have good pass rushers in Ahmad Brooks, Justin Smith and whoever they've got coming.
The one thing that worries me about the Bengals is they could be a little light at receiver depending on what happens with Jerome Simpson. If Andre Caldwell has to go outside in place of Simpson, that makes it a different dynamic. You have to be able to loosen them up on the outside.
I think Andy Dalton's been fine. I was a little concerned about him after the first game. I think they should have beat Cleveland by more than they did. I don't think Cleveland is as good as most people think, but Dalton has been fine and he'll be better in Weeks 7 and 8."
THE EDGE: Bengals, 17-13. But they can't get in a 50-pass game.
At first glance I like the Bengals at home, but it's going to be important to see how they play with the distractions of the week. Losing Simpson would be key considering they already lost Shipley.
Two matchups fascinate me. The 49ers were talking about getting either Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback in the second round. They really liked both and they decided not to trade ahead of Cincinnati. I really like what Dalton is doing.
I was talking to a GM who had a pick late in the first round and he told me he was sold on Dalton at the Rose Bowl when he was standing on the TCU sidelines before the game and the Wisconsin fans were just really giving to the kid. Calling him everything in the book. He never flinched, never turned around and when Wisconsin took the kickoff and drove down the field, he just walked back out there and calmly took them back down the filed against a team that was supposed to handle them. This GM needs a QB and now he'll probably have to get one next year.
The other matchup I Iike is Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth against 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith. I love these two guys. Whitworth is probably the most underrated left tackle in the league and I think Smith is the most underrated defensive tackle. I mean, he just embarrassed Doug Free of the Cowboys last week. You can say, 'It's just Doug Free,' but if the Cowboys didn't re-sign him he would have been the highest paid tackle in free agency.
These are two tough, physical guys that have been around and are leaders for their teams. That's going to be fun to watch.
I think Cedric Benson is going to run well for the Bengals and on the flip side the 49ers have a really good offensive line coach in Mike Solari, but it just hasn't clicked yet in either the protection or the running game. What's Frank Gore averaging on the ground, 2.5 right?
The Edge: Bengals, 20-17. They're the better team right now. The 49ers are still a team in transition.
It comes down to two areas. Can the Bengals offense do anything against the Niners front seven in the running game, and do the 49ers finally get Gore going on the ground? Gore hasn't had much room in the first two games, although Seattle is better against the run than one might realize.
As much as they talk about Harbaugh and his West Coast offense, he was about pounding the ball at Stanford. But the 49ers blocking fullback, Moran Norris, isn't going to play and they may do more one-back stuff. But I think on the road they try to establish Gore.
The 49ers have issues at wide receiver. Braylon Edwards is out. Michael Crabtree is returning, but he's never had anything close to a full NFL offseason. He's never had a great rapport with quarterback Alex Smith.
Vernon Davis is due for a big game at tight end. He wasn't happy about catching only seven passes for 65 yards in the first two games. He generally bounces back strong after a couple down weeks. How much the 49ers need Davis to help block is a key variable. There have been protection questions. The Cowboys sacked Smith six times and gave him a concussion.
Defensively, they have a really good front seven, with issues at cornerback.
Patrick Willis is the best player on the defense, but Justin Smith is a close second with great power and pass-rush ability. These are two of my favorite players to watch. He's been better suited as a 3-4 defensive end than he was as a 4-3 end with the Bengals.
Another ex-Bengal, Ahmad Brooks, can be a factor on the pass-rush. He broke Tony Romo's rib last week, so I think he could be a guy to watch.
The Edge: 49ers 23, Bengals 17.
To me the key is two interesting matchups involving ex-49ers. There is (SAM backer) Manny Lawson covering the tight ends and (cornerback) Nate Clements coming up to stop Gore in the running game.
Manny did a nice job here covering receivers. It was probably his strength. He'll be matched up on Vernon Davis or the other tight end, Delanie Walker. Davis's bread-and-butter with Alex Smith is the seam route, but Dallas took it away and the 49ers ended up isolating Walker on an outside linebacker.
Part of the reason they parted ways with Clements is because at his age it was a question if he can still run with top-flight receivers. But he's one of the best corners I've ever seen coming up to support the run. And with the Niners wanting to establish the run, I expect he'll be flying up to try and stop Gore. They'll try to beat Clements with double moves by young receivers like Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn, but they know that if they catch it on him that Clements doesn't just like to tackle, he'll go for the strip. So you know the 49ers receivers are going to be aware of that.
You have to figure that Gore is going to get plenty of work with Alex Smith coming off a concussion. I look for the Bengals to load up the box and make Smith beat them. I just don't think he can, given the 49ers are 14-50 on the road since 2003 and 10 of those wins are in the division.
Plus, one receiver is out in Edwards, and another, Crabtree has been limited in practice. He'll try to go in on third down in the slot and if he feels pretty good they'll move him around. But I don't expect him to take more than 15 to 20 snaps.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 17-14. This is a game the Bengals probably and should win at home.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals run defense has to play better than it did against Denver last week. Although the Broncos' Kyle Orton is the more dangerous quarterback, they still can't let Alex Smith get in manageable down-and-distances so he can pay-action them and keep them on the field by pounding Gore.
The 49ers passing game is still a work in progress and the QB of the future, the Niners hope, is on the bench. Tight end Vernon Davis is the one guy that can hurt the Bengals.
Those that have played here for a few years under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer are confident the Bengals are going respond after an underachieving effort in Denver. That's been the Zimmer track record.
On offense the Bengals are expecting to get a heavy dose of the Steelers out of the division. Forty-Niners coordinator Vic Fangio is a Dom Capers disciple and their front seven is a Steelers-esque fast, physical and big. Brooks, Justin Smith and Willis are loads. Dalton, yet to throw a pick, is going to be challenged. The Bengals have to mix it up because if they try to slog it or air it out, they're only going to score seven or 10 points, and get the QB beat up.
That's why losing Simpson could really hurt the Bengals. San Fran needs to be loosened up and taken out of the box. Without Simpson, the Bengals would need a big game out of tight end Jermaine Gresham in order for them to vertical the field. Gresham has been up and down, but they need him to find that consistency Sunday.
The other major matchup is Niners return man Ted Ginn vs. Bengals returner Brandon Tate. In the opener Ginn became the first man in 62 years of 49ers football to return a punt and kick for scores in the same game. Meanwhile, Tate is learning returning punts on the job and it's been an open classroom with some tough moments.
But special teams coach Darrin Simmons remains extremely upbeat about Tate's explosiveness and senses big things soon. His biggest teaching tip: "Be decisive. Don't overthink it. Take it and go."
Another game within the game. Even if Simpson does suit up, would the Bengals dress all six receivers? Andrew Hawkins, just signed from the practice squad is a demon covering kicks.
Because that's the kind of game it's going to be. An AFC North matchup that fell out of the NFC West. Defense. Special teams. Low-scoring game decided by a field goal as both teams continue to protect their young quarterbacks.