The Bengals Start the Season With Two Winnable Games

With six tough division games ahead, Cincinnati could use a little Joe-mentum in the first two weeks.

The 2021 NFL season begins tonight, with the Super Bowl champs Tampa Bay hosting Dallas. Will Cincinnati ever be in the position of hosting that first showcase game or even considered to be the opponent?

Baby steps, people. With another campaign upon us—a crossroads season in the coaching career of Zac Taylor and an important one for Joe Burrow to resoundingly become the player he is capable of being—it’s time to forecast both this Sunday’s opening encounter with the Minnesota Vikings and the 2021 season writ large. Hint: I’ll be dovetailing nicely with the Football Outsiders projection for mean wins this season. You can look up what that is, or you can keep reading…

Fast starts are always important in the NFL, but it’s particularly outsized in Cincinnati. The first two games, winnable encounters with the Vikings at home and the Bears in Chi-Town, take on added significance for a young team unaccustomed to winning. Take them both, and suddenly there is a belief that perhaps the Bengals indeed have turned a corner. Lose both, and the “Here we go again” mindset will be cast in cement.

The schedule gets tough from there, and Cincinnati, as ever, has the divisional gauntlet to contend with, worsened now by Cleveland’s disgusting rise to powerhouse status. That means there are six toughies before the rest of the schedule is even assessed, not merely four as in previous years.

Fortunately, the Vikings have a good amount of question marks, not limited to the status of their Bubble Boy quarterback, Kirk Cousins, who is a ticking time bomb of unavailability due to his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Their offensive line, poor in pass protection in 2020 (though top-ranked in Offensive Line Yards, the Football Outsiders run blocking measure), may be without its top draft choice, tackle Christian Darrisaw, and is weak despite the gargantuan dough handed out to right tackle Brian O’Neill. Indeed, the obvious focus is on how well Cincinnati can block the Purple People, but the inverse—the pressure Messrs. Hubbard and Hendrickson, et al, can get on Cousins—will go a long way toward deciding the game’s outcome.

Minnesota still has plenty of dangerous weapons, namely running back Dalvin Cook. Remember, the Vikes traded up with Cincinnati to get Cook in round two of the 2017 draft, while the Bengals went back and landed Joe Mixon. Ironically enough, both backs were injured as rookies and missed the matchup between these teams, won handily by the Vikings. There’s an entirely plausible scenario in which Cook essentially wins the game by himself—he’s that talented, and he’s proven to be more explosive in his pro career than Mixon, in part because he gets used as a pass receiver far more effectively. And his presence allows Minnesota to feature a strong play-action attack, with Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen a potent downfield combo.

Presumably the Bengals will feature plenty of zone coverage, and the injury to Vikes tight end Irv Smith eliminates a threat against that brand of defense. Regardless, Minnesota will be hard to slow down. Even with their struggles from a year ago, this was a top 10 offense by DVOA.

Can the Bengals outgun them? Certainly, and this will be an excellent early indicator of the season’s overall theme: Can Burrow take that next step into elite(ish) status? Year 2 is the time for a quarterback of his pedigree to blossom into a star, regardless of last year’s injury.

Minnesota has a very good defensive front and excellent safeties, but their cornerback play was atrocious in 2020 and remains a question mark. Old friend Mike Zimmer no doubt swore enough to fill all 10,000 lakes in the state watching his defense stumble around, and you know he won’t want to be embarrassed by his former employers. Still, the Vikings D doesn’t cause many sleepless nights, particularly on the road. It’s the kind of opponent that one desires in an opener—good but beatable, especially if Burrow is who we think (and pray) he is.

The last two openers under Taylor have been a microcosm of his tenure as coach: excruciating losses that put the focus on a weak point that would haunt the team all season. Last year’s loss to the Chargers featured dreadful offensive line play, not to mention a shaky kicker and the first sign that A.J. Green’s time in Cincinnati was ending. So much of the team looks different from that opening Sunday, and of course Paul Brown Stadium will look different as well—it will be full of hopeful fans desperate for a change in outlook from the last five years of dreck.

Will we be rewarded for our eternal optimism? Taylor’s 6-25-1 record over the last two seasons would indicate that we should temper those feelings, but that’s always hard to do this time of year. And there are solid reasons to feel good about the 2021 Bengals. For one thing, the team was on a clear trajectory toward the .500 level when Burrow went down. Entering this year off a 7-9 2020 would carry a far different feeling, and so long as Burrow truly isn’t compromised by the knee, we should probably frame the discussion about what lies ahead in that context.

Factoring in Burrow’s rust level as well as trust level in his surgically repaired joint, I still expect him to play like the No. 1 overall pick he deservedly was. There are playmakers all around him, and I have faith that the line will at least be good enough not to be an anchor around the offense. I also think having what appears to be an outright weapon at kicker will have a bearing on the team’s fortunes in close games, though not as much as the inevitable improvement in the red zone, where Cincinnati was dead last in 2020. Making long kicks is great, but even better is not settling for three—those four-point swings have killed the Bengals over Taylor’s time as coach.

Is the defense truly improved? I’m less certain on this end, despite the occasional stellar play during the summer. Pass rush still appears to be a bugaboo, especially with the cruel injury to rookie Joseph Ossai. They’re drastically better at tackle after last year’s injury-wrought mess, but winning in the NFL often comes down to Bill Walsh’s credo about fourth quarter pressure on the enemy quarterback—and that’s usually where elite talent up front presents itself. Which is something Cincinnati doesn’t have.

Other than Jessie Bates, the back seven is more deep than outstanding, which over the course of a long season of attrition might not be the worst thing. Countless games are won or lost due to having mere average—not terrible—players come in for injured or weary starters. Cincinnati was forced into playing a legion of terrible players on defense last year. Merely stepping up the depth quality should have an effect on the unit, but exactly how much of a difference it makes in wins and losses is hard to quantify. We should get a hint of that straight away on Sunday, with Eli Apple stepping in at corner to replace Trae Waynes, who’s still yet to play a game in stripes.

A lot to like, a lot to fear … sounds like 90 percent of the league. Indeed, the difference between winning six games and winning 10 in the NFL is often very small, a handful of plays or personnel matters in each game. With a few (overdue) breaks and the expectation that Burrow becomes Burrow!!!, I can foresee a 10-7 season. With the usual Cincinnati luck, the difficult schedule, and their inability to close out games, 7-10 seems equally likely. I lean that way, mainly due to my long history with the team and also because my brethren at Football Outsiders peg the team with a 7.2 Mean Wins projection.

The thing is, depending on how it goes, 7-10 might not seem bad at all by year’s end. That’s the sound of a beaten down fan base looking for optimism in yet another losing season.

But that’s all down the road. For now, let’s start strong and beat the Vikings!

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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