I wrote much of the preceding 2,400 words Thursday morning, with the TV on in the background. As I typed away a bunch of nonsensical words about a nonsensical sport, I was keeping an eye on the developments occurring at Fountain Square. My thoughts about those events, even more than 24 hours later, are still too all over the place to come up with anything coherent in this space, other than to express profound sadness for the families of the victims as well as extreme gratitude that there are people who embrace the extremely unenviable task of confronting and stopping people armed with enough ammunition to kill dozens of people.
What a tragedy. What sadness. That's all I've got for now. On to the trivial stuff...
What's one more set of preseason NFL guesses, right?
On January 2nd, I wrote a post in reaction to the news that Marvin Lewis would be returning to coach the Bengals for a 16th season. It reflected not just disappointment in Marvin coming back, but a sense of "how many times I will I let this team let me down before I learn" that anyone who's rooted for this stupid franchise can relate to.
247 days later, I feel like I'm setting myself up for letdown and disappointment the seven millionth time. I'm still not nuts about Marvin returning, although the franchise has delivered - at least during the offseason - on a lot of the themes he touched on in his "Im baaaack" press conference in early January.
But I am, even if deep down inside I know better, moderately optimistic about the Bengals this season, and even more than moderately optimistic about their future. They did have a productive offseason, and I believe that this team is better than the one that walked off the field after saving its coach's job on New Year's Eve. The things they've done over the past eight months, from being aggressive in addressing the O-line, to some of the moves made in the early days of free agency, to how they've embraced youth and the upside and uncertainty balance that comes with it, put off a different, fresh vibe. There wasn't a decision, whether it was something out of the Bengals' typical comfort zone, or something felt like a part of the tried and true formula (like the Atkins and Dunlap extensions) that didn't make at least some sense.
I'm always going to be skeptical of the Marvin/Andy Dalton combo, and I'm not as bought-in on the turnover on the coaching staff as others, but as much as years of this team making me regret ever believing in them has left me skeptical of what the Bengals promise, what they've done since announcing that Marvin was coming back has me believing that in 2018, things could be better.
As I wrote in January, one day I'll learn.
THE OFFICIAL PRESEASON GUESS
I was tempted to repeat last year's preseason guess, which was an 8-7-1 finish, and I'll admit that I spent most of the offseason trying to convince myself that the Bengals would be anything other than 8-8, but if this team truly is better than last year's, it gets to at least nine wins. I think they are, so I think they will.
The main reasons why...
*They finally have a clearly identifiable strength. An identity, if you will. This team's pass rush could be hellacious, allowing them to improve upon last year's 14 turnovers, helping them do better than last year's 40% third down conversion rate, and maybe, just maybe, helping them challenge the franchise's record for sacks in a season, which is 51.
*The offensive line should be better, even if it isn't good. The whole O-line overhaul, like their work on the defensive line, feels like a two-year project. This is year one, and while there's a bunch of dudes on the line that I'm having a hard time talking myself into, I believe a slightly below average offensive line still allows Andy Dalton to get rid of the ball quickly, and gives Joe Mixon just enough room to be at least marginally productive. I admit that I'm forcing myself into this one a little bit, and the ceiling for this bunch feels low, but they've emphasized this group so much, that they have to be better, right?
*Tyler Boyd and John Ross circa 2018 can be Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones circa 2013. This a gross oversimplication, but Sanu and Jones combined in '13 for 98 catches for 1162 yards and 12 touchdowns. As much as Boyd's second season was disappointing and as much as Ross' rookie year was a disaster, I believe they can approach those numbers this season. If they do, this offense takes off.
*Concerns about corner depth are overstated. Find me a fan of an NFL team and I'll show you a fan who doesn't love his team's fourth or fifth corners. Sure, I have no idea if either Tony McCrae or Darius Phillips can play. But are we sure that any team's fourth and fifth corners can play? Dre Kirkpatrick was down last year, but with, Darqueze Dennard, and star-in-the-making William Jackson III, the Bengals do have a trio of corners that a lot of teams would like to have.
*Andy Dalton. I wrote two weeks ago about the main reason why the national prognostications of the Bengals going 4-12 are silly. Spoiler alert: It's Andy Dalton. He kept them afloat in 2016, and again in 2017, behind bad offensive lines, while being surrounded by a disintegrating group of skill guys, and armed with no run game to speak of. Make those things better, and you get a better Andy Dalton who's proven that he can guide a team to winning record when everything around him isn't broken.
*Vontaze. You're going to read this paragraph is something I have coming out for The Athletic either later today or tomorrow....
It feels like Vontaze is flying under the radar, and understandably so for entirely different reasons. He’s going to miss the first four games, which means he’ll fail to play a full season for a fifth straight year. But also, there’s enough quality players and interesting components on the defense that you can talk for a while about what the Bengals might do on D without ever mentioning Vontaze’s name. This is a good thing, as Marvin Lewis might say.
But it also feels like we’re sleeping on Vontaze Burfict a little. Yes, his play last year was, by his standards, disappointing. And sure, he’s a very difficult player to count on, or at times, even root for. Plus, is there anyone in the NFL that seems destined to intersect with the calamity that is the new helmet rule than Burfict?
But he’s not quite yet 28 years-old. He’s still marvelously talented, and for all of his faults, he’s still a very instinctive player, one that was often described not long ago as the heart and soul of some very good Bengals defenses. The Bengals did make some improvements at linebacker which, combined with some of the other things they’ve done to upgrade the defense, could stand to maximize Vontaze’s effectiveness. I wonder what kind of shape he’ll be in after missing four weeks, and if I could bet on such things, I’d wager on Vontaze Burfict getting tossed from a game for violating the new rules. I know there’s fewer and fewer people who feel the way I do, but as exasperating as he is, I still believe the pros to having Vontaze on the team outweigh the cons. Do you think everyone’s sleeping on Vontaze Burfict?
*The NFL's learning curve has been flattened out. Teams are throwing young players to the fire more than ever, which means that relying on first and second year players to help turn a team around isn't as much of a gamble as it used to be. The Bengals have finally embraced youth, and while the youth movement will inevitably yield some growing pains, this is something that more and more teams go into a season knowing they'll have to deal with. The good news is that with their youth, the Bengals also have a ton of upside.
*Health. When I think of 2015, the first thing that pops into my mind is how much the Bengals enjoyed good health, at least until Andy Dalton crushed his thumb in week 13. This year's team has its share of will-they-stay-healthy players, but they got through camp pretty much intact, and as much as its impossible to predict how much a team will be wrecked by injuries, it's at least not a huge problem as the season begins.
*The schedule. I would argue that if you ranked every NFL team from one through 32, you'd only find five 2018 Bengals opponents - New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, the Chargers, and Carolina - in the top half.
Also, there's only one prime time game, so that's nice.
There's things I'm less enthused about. The O-line does have a low floor. I'm skeptical of Bill Lazor, mainly because my two friends who are Dolphins fans laughed at me when the Bengals hired him to be the permanent offensive coordinator. It's been so long since the Bengals had a consistently dynamic running game that I now assume they never will. They still lack overall roster depth. Tyler Eifert is made of glass. I'm convinced the new helmet rule will cost them a game. And, you know, the whole Marvin Lewis thing.
I don't do the whole go-up-and-down-the-schedule-and-guess-which-games-are-wins thing. I just look at the team and the factors and develop a feel for what their record will be, usually with no success. I can be convinced that is a ten win team. I can be convinced that this is a seven win team. I'm going to guess that they're a nine-win team.
OTHER PRESEASON GUESSES
AFC Division Winners: Patriots, Steelers (with a 10-6 record), Texans, Chargers
AFC Wild Cards: Jaguars, and yes, the Bengals
I have the Bengals at 9-7. I have the Jets at 9-7. You're asking me to guess who will win the tiebreaker?
AFC Hot Take: Whatever the Raiders' over/under is, I'm betting the under.
NFC Division Winners: Eagles, Falcons, Packers, Rams
NFC Wild Cards: Saints and Vikings
The NFC is loaded, so much so that bloggers will fill time in December writing their "is it time to do away with conferences" pieces that I'll surely waste time with on some random talk show.
NFC Hot Take: I'm a huge Jimmy Garoppolo guy, but his skills guys are very uninspiring, and that was true before Jerick McKinnon got hurt. Their O-line is not a strength, and their defense has all sort of holes. Also, I want one more year to pass before the 49ers are actually good again.
Super Bowl pick: Falcons over Patriots.
If the Rams had Matt Ryan, this would've been an easier choice.
Will the Bengals win a playoff game: No, but that's not the point. More on this topic in a separate post that I'm sure you'll be waiting for anxiously.
BENGALS v. COLTS
I'm excited to see my first ever Bengals win in Indy. I feel oddly good about this game. Much of that has to do with the Colts, who have a poor offensive line, a lackluster running game (I'll feel this way regardless of what happens with Marlon Mack this week), and large collections of trash all across their defense, which is going to deploy players in the secondary and at linebacker that wouldn't start for other teams.
Yes, Andrew Luck is back and there will a time this season when you don't want to play the Colts because Andrew Luck is going to give them a chance.
This is not that time.
Andrew Luck hasn't played a game in forever. The Colts still have a bad roster. Their coach isn't the guy they wanted to hire.
Indy does have a beautiful stadium, a good pregame scene that I'll be taking advantage of, and the Colts have the best uniforms in sports.
But they're going to lose on Sunday. I think, by a rather decisive margin.
Bengals 27 Colts 14 (Cincinnati +3)
THERE ARE OTHER GAMES
Atlanta (+1) over Philly. The Eagles showed no interest in trading Nick Foles, which will be rewarded by the Super Bowl MVP reminding everyone why he's a backup. (Note: I didn't factor in the Steve Sarkisian quotient, or the fact that Matt Ryan would spend the evening looking like me playing quarterback.)
Baltimore (-7) over Buffalo. The Ravens strike me as an ideal week one survivor pool pick, and even though I think they'll be the most "meh" team in the league (barring LaMarr Jackson getting a chance to play QB, of course), if I only have to lay seven points with their defense against Nathan Peterman and Buffalo's offensive line, then I'll lay those seven points happily and willingly.
Cleveland (+4) over Pittsburgh. You know whose side I'm taking in the whole Le'Veon Bell vs. Steelers standoff? The side of combustion. I need this whole thing to be what torpedoes the entire season for Pittsburgh, who I think comes back to the pack a little this year, even if I do have them winning the division. I think they regress to the mean in close games, and I'm not as sold as others on their defense. And as great as he is, it still feels like we've moved into in the "Ben Roethlisberger can win you a game, but he can lose you a game" era. I'm not a big believer in the Browns...yet. But can a play-it-safe QB keep it close at home against the division standard-setters? I say yes.
Tennessee (-1) over Miami. I came close to picking the Titans to win the AFC South, then I came close to picking them to be a wild card team. Ultimately, I did neither. Damn you, Marcus Mariota.
Minnesota (-6) over San Francisco. The Vikings might be better than they were a year ago.
Houston (+6.5) over New England. Does anything feel more pre-determined that JJ Watt being named Comeback Player of the Year if he plays in 16 games?
New Orleans (-9.5) over Tampa Bay. Whichever team Alvin Kamara is on gets my money.
Giants (+3) over Jacksonville. Still waiting for my thank you note from Blake Bortles.
(Note: I'm not really waiting for a thank you note from Blake Bortles)
Kansas City (+3) over Chargers. You're going to hear a lot about the Chiefs and Pat Mahomes on Monday.
Arizona (-1) over Washington. David Johnson is back. Alex Smith is with the Redskins. I'm excited about one of those things.
Carolina (-3) over Dallas. The over/under for Christian McCaffrey total touchdowns is 7.5 Do what you want with this information.
Denver (-3) over Seattle. A guy once called me on an ESPN Radio show and claimed that Russell Wilson could beat any number of NFL teams by himself. The QB will get a chance to prove the caller correct this season.
Chicago (+7.5) over Green Bay. This line is just too tempting.
Detroit (-7) over the Jets. I kinda like the Jets this season. I kinda don't like the Lions. I kinda ain't picking a rookie QB on the road against a pretty decent secondary.
Rams (-3.5) over Oakland. This line will climb before Sunday at 8:30. Buy the Rams now. Or don't. It really won't affect me either way.
CINCINNATI v. MIAMI
I've walked away from the last five Battles for the Victory Bell thinking that Miami should have won. I've never gone into one thinking that Miami would win.
This year is different.
I still have the residual giddiness leftover from UC's win over UCLA, but there's always been a sense of "if the Redhawks ever do win one against the Bearcats, this will have to be there year." Cincinnati is still too much of a work in progress, even though that work does seem to be progressing. I'll be happy if I'm wrong, of course, but this just feels like Miami's year to take the bell back to Oxford.
Miami (-1) over Cincinnati. I'm sorry.
Ohio State (-35) over Rutgers
Kentucky +14 over Florida
Dayton over SE Missouri State
ALSO RECEIVING ENTERTAINMENT CONSIDERATION
UCLA (+29.5) over Oklahoma
Ball State (+33.5) over Notre Dame
Pitt (+8.5) over Penn State
South Carolina (+10.5) over Georgia
Have a pleasant weekend.