I guess we should start with what happened last night in Cleveland, which as a life-long Bengals fan and thus Browns-hater, I will admit to getting caught up in.
Full disclosure: I was rooting for the Browns to lose. Again. But Baker Mayfield's NFL debut in Cleveland's 21-17 win over the Jets was great television. From the opening kick, the crowd sounded unlike any Paul Brown Stadium crowd I've heard in years, with a nervous energy that permeated through the home team's slow start and reached a crescendo when Mayfield charged onto the field to replace Tyrod Taylor.
You could feel the weight of that moment even watching from home, and it was immediately noticeable the energy that Mayfield's entrance brought not only to the crowd, but to his Browns teammates. They played harder with 2018's number one overall pick on the field, and he instantly proved to be more capable of helping his team win that boring Tyrod Taylor ever hoped to be.
The game was fantastic, played in both a charged-up atmosphere as well as against the backdrop of Sam Darnold, the quarterback the Browns passed on last April, providing the opposition. Mayfield was quite good, living up to the hype in a moment that really couldn't have been scripted any better. National TV game. A team trying to break a losing streak that goes back to the season before last. A 14-point hole. The other team led by a high draft pick at quarterback. The head coach with his job hanging in the balance. Mayfield with his helmet on while standing on the sideline. That crowd. It was awesome, even if the outcome wasn't.
I'd be giddy right now if I was a Browns fan, armed with the same feeling I had the first time I watched Carson Palmer do something magical. Context should always be applied, of course. Mayfield was great, but not otherworldly. He was playing against an okay opponent playing on the road after a short week that's starting a rookie of its own. The Jets had chances to salt the game away and didn't. Mayfield had help from a Cleveland defense that's given teams better than New York fits.
But still, the Browns might have their quarterback. And they certainly are interesting. After 0-16, if I was a Cleveland fan, I'd take interesting.
BENGALS v. PANTHERS
The Bengals last played eight days ago as I type this. This means that I've had more than a week to think and talk about the Bengals game against the Panthers. I'm Bengals/Panther'd out.
I believe the Bengals will win. For starters, Carolina's offensive line is a mess, with injuries sidelining both starting tackles. Their downfield weapons don't scare me, and even if they did, their new offense doesn't seem to value taking chances downfield. I believe Christian McCaffery gets his catches, but even without Vontaze Burfict, I believe the Bengals can get him to the ground without allowing him to make impact plays. Same for Cam Newton, who I think the Bengals can counter with a more athletic defense.
The Billy Price injury doesn't worry me, because Billy Price is not yet the caliber of player that deems in irreplaceable. Right now - and this will hopefully change - there's no real difference between Price and Trey Hopkins.
And I'm not fretting about losing Joe Mixon either. Giovani Bernard is a capable second backfield option, and I trust an otherwise fully-equipped Andy Dalton to make the right decisions, and get the ball to hie receivers quickly and decisively, even against a strong Carolina front seven. This is the game where I guess that Tyler Eifert reminds us that he's on the team.
I worry about the offensive line as a whole, and if this is the week the Panthers unleash Julius Peppers, I fear for what might happen if Bobby Hart has to block him, and if Dre Kirkpatrick is going to start dropping potential picks on a regular basis, then a mistake like that in what feels like a low-scoring, close game, could be the difference. This might be a matchup of the two ugliest uniforms in the NFL, and the game might follow suit.
But I like the road team, and as much fun as Browns fans are having with their teams first win, I'll enjoy mine being 3-0.
Bengals 20 Panthers 17 (Cincinnati +3 is a push. I'll take the points, and my chances.)
THERE ARE OTHER GAMES
San Francisco (+6.5) over Kansas City. You can have Baker Mayfield. This game involves my two current football crushes, Jimmy Garoppolo and Pat Mahomes. There isn't a more fun quarterback in the game right now than Mahomes, who defies the NFL's dink-and-dunk-and-don't-get-fired credo by willingly chucking the ball all over the place - while not making any mistakes - to all sorts of fast dudes running free through the secondary. If I could watch the Chiefs on loop, I would. I just won't bet on them, not with Jimmy G and Max Breida on the other team, and not when the number is approaching a touchdown. KC wins. Niners cover.
Philadelphia (-6.5) over Indianapolis. The Colts are averaging 0.0 points per play. Carson Wentz is back. The Eagles are home. It's not 2014.
Buffalo (+16.5) over Minnesota. A real, live person wrote this about Vontae Davis...
There’s no such thing as “retiring” in the middle of a football game. That’s called “quitting”.
And yet retiring is exactly what Vontae Davis is claiming he did on Sunday while his Buffalo Bills were trailing the Chargers 28-6 at intermission.
It’s inexcusable. It’s unconscionable. And it’s been 72 hours and I’m still not over it. Not by a long shot.
Denver (+5) over Baltimore. If the Broncos can survive with Phillip Lindsay running the ball, the Bengals can survive with Giovani Bernard and Thomas Rawls running for them, right?
Jacksonville (pick 'em) over Tennessee. Blaine Gabbert or Marcus Mariota? Does it matter? If the Jaguars team that played the Patriots last week shows up, it won't.
Miami (-3) over Oakland. If your life goes right, your Sunday won't include one down of this classic. If my life goes right, this game goes the way I think it will. I don't love any of these picks this week. I do, though, really like this one.
Giants (+6) over Houston. The Giants not drafting a quarterback now seems like a not good idea.
Chargers (+7) over Rams. Wouldn't go near this one. I love the Rams, but if you're giving me seven points and Philip Rivers, I know who I'm taking.
Chicago (-6) over Arizona. You guys do realize this Khalil Mack guy has been around for a little while now, right? The Bears might actually be good. They certainly are kinda fun.
Washington (+3) over Green Bay. The lousy roughing the passer call that went Minnesota's way last week obscured the fact that the Packers needed all sorts of Vikings special teams eff ups to even be in the game. Aaron Rodgers is great. His team is not.
Atlanta (-3) over New Orleans. Sean Payton got outcoached by Hue Jackson last week. Also, the Saints are back to being horrible defensively, which just feels right, doesn't it?
Dallas (+1.5) over Seattle. The Seahawks have no running game, a porous defense, and a terrible offensive line. They do have Russell Wilson, who has quietly turned into one of the league's more overrated players. The Cowboys don't have Josh Gordon, which would annoy me greatly if I was a Dallas fan.
New England (-6.5) over Detroit. Bill Belichick is coming off a loss, there's a book out about his relationship with Tom Brady, and he's going up against a former assistant. The line could be 26.5 and I'd lay the points. Related: I think Josh Gordon is worth the risk.
Pittsburgh (-1) over Tampa Bay. Imagine what it will be like if Tuesday morning comes and the Bengals are 3-0, the Browns are 1-1-1, and the Steelers are winless. I just think the Fitzmagic will run out this week, and I don't believe the Bucs are as good on the O-line as they've been. And too many people are counting the Steelers out for me to feel comfortable. This game could be fun. My guess is the result won't be.
CINCINNATI v. OHIO
First off, I had no idea....
Secondly, the Bearcats now have a legit chance to be 6-0 and bowl eligible heading into their bye, and dare I say, 8-0 heading into November's Navy/USF/UCF gauntlet.
First thing's first. This feels like a sneaky good game, with a UC team that's not yet where we hope it is - although getting there - dealing with a charged-up opponent that would make headlines if it pulled off the upset. If the Bearcats can run it against Ohio the way I think they can - and I'd love to see some Tavion Thomas in game situations that matter - then UC wins. If the game dictates that Cincinnati has to throw, well, then I don't know. I've picked the Bearcats to not cover in each of their first three games, and at some point I'm going to be right. I hope not, of course, but they haven't blown out an FBS opponent yet (the Miami game was not a blowout, despite the 21-zip final) and while I think Cincinnati will win the game, triggering an I'm-giddy-that-the-game-is-at-noon level of getting after it once it concludes, I do think it will be kinda, sorta close.
Ohio (+8) over Cincinnati
Ohio State (-37) over Tulane. I hope Urban Meyer is adequately prepared to be less of a good sport than Ryan Day is.
Kentucky (+9.5) over Mississippi State
Michigan State (-5.5) over Indiana
Dayton over Davidson
THANK ME LATER
Wisconsin (-3) over Iowa
Troy State (-5) over Louisiana-Monroe
Wake Forest (+7.5) over Notre Dame
Texas (+3) over TCU
Enjoy your weekend.