It’s not a typo—a real, living, national football writer openly picked the Cincinnati Bengals to win the Super Bowl with nary an ounce of facetiousness. Pete Prisco, NFL columnist for CBS Sports, has predicted every game of the season again this year, and the 2013 season edition was released Wednesday. This dude knows football, and he predicts a preseason rematch in the Super Bowl, with the Bengals defeating the Falcons by a score of 31-30 come February.
I sent the link to Cincinnati Magazine associate editor and sports blogs honcho Justin Williams, who responded thusly: “Oh dear God, this TERRIFIES me. I hate this. I’m gonna go throw up.”
Sounds about right. And, frankly, the trepidation is understandable. The Bengals have quietly improved over the past few seasons, but not to the point where they have entered the national consciousness as a legitimate Super Bowl threat. So it must be a strange feeling for Bengals fans, knowing that there are actual expectations that exist beyond the confines of the city.
I spoke with Prisco last night to further understand the rationale behind the prediction (and to ease the minds of all those fretting the newly added pressure. Full disclosure: I, like Pete, am employed by CBSsports.com.)
There are two components to his prediction that Prisco kept reiterating, the first being Andy Dalton. Though a couple painful playoff exits have some fans and pundits wavering on his long-term playoff potential, Prisco thinks Dalton will be able to take the next step.
“People talk about his arm strength? That’s garbage. His arm is plenty good. They were second in the league in 40-plus-yard plays last year. His arm is plenty good enough,” Prisco says. “People forget that the guy threw 27 touchdown passes last year and he’s thrown 47 in his first two years, and think that he’s some kind of bad quarterback.”
Aiding in Dalton’s improvement, Prisco says, will be a good supporting cast of receivers opposite A.J. Green, an offensive line that is a year more experienced and fully healthy, and a pair of dynamic rookies that defenses must account for.
“I think they have pieces in place now to really challenge defenses and make them respect a lot more than A.J. Green.”
An improved offense will help a defense that has already made great strides under defensive coordinator and frequent F-bomb dropper Mike Zimmer. “The culture change that I see is that for years, they weren’t nasty on defense,” Prisco says. “They didn’t have that mentality. Zimmer has gone in there and they’re nasty on defense. With (James) Harrison and (Vontaze) Burfict and Geno (Atkins) and guys like that, they have nastiness on the defense.”
Ah yes, Geno. Prisco agrees that the doggy-paddling, Gresham-battling defensive phenomenon is one of the game’s best defensive players, ranking him behind only Houston’s J.J. Watt as far as defensive linemen. “He takes a lot of doubles and that helps single up the outside rushers in (Michael) Johnson and (Carlos) Dunlap and that really helps get them to the quarterback.”
When Prisco describes it, it all sounds so…logical. Maybe it’s time to raise your expectations, Bengals fans.
Some other interesting notes from my conversation with Pete:
Despite preseason injuries, Prisco was bullish on the wide receiving corps. “Sanu, Jones, Tate, Whalen—I think that whole group is going to be good. Not great. A.J Green’s going to be great, but the rest of those guys don’t have to be.”
On the battle for the safety spot opposite Reggie Nelson: “They’ll try a bunch of different guys and it might be by committee, but I think (George) Iloka, he played pretty well in the (Falcons) game the other night, too. He’s a big kid and he’s got a little bit of range and he’ll tackle you.”
On why Mike Zimmer hasn’t landed a head-coaching gig: “I can’t figure out why he doesn’t have a job. He only had one interview last year. You hear that teams are afraid of the way he handles himself and he’s a little impatient and stuff, but if you want a culture change, that’s the guy to go get.”