Cincinnati Bengals (0-0) at Chicago Bears (0-0)
With the Ravens having a poor off-season (at least in the general public’s eyes) and the Steelers coming off an 8-8 season, the Bengals have been popularly anointed the best team in the AFC North and the likely division champ. This does make some sense. They probably have more non-quarterback talent than any team in that division. They return a strong defense and a strong offensive line and add rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert to the fold offensively, which will give the Bengals’ offense more versatility and balance. The added talent could also allow #1 receiver AJ Green to shine even more in his 3rd year in the league.
However, I still don’t know if Andy Dalton is capable of consistently beating top level teams. If you count the game against the Ravens’ backups week 17 of 2012 as a non-playoff team, Dalton is 18-4 against non-playoff teams in his career, but just 1-11 against playoff teams, including two post-season early exits. That one win was against the early season Redskins, who lost left tackle Trent Williams in that game. In those 12 games against future playoff teams, Dalton was 250 of 445 (56.2%) for 2934 yards (6.6 YPA), 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. In the other 22 games, he’s 420 of 679 (61.9%) for 4518 yards (6.7 YPA), 35 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
Are the Bears are playoff team? Well I don’t think anyone would be shocked if they made the playoffs. I didn’t predict them to make the playoffs, but mostly because the NFC is so loaded. If they were in the AFC like the Bengals, I don’t think they would have much problem at least grabbing a Wild Card. I think they certainly more have in common with the types of teams Dalton has been unable to beat than the types of teams he has dominated.
The Bears were overly reliant on dominating the turnover battle (+20) and the return touchdown battle (+7 touchdowns, 49 points) last season, two things that would have been very tough for them to carry into 2013. Their offense scored just 19.1 points per game last season if you take out the points scored by the defense on returns. That number doesn’t tell the whole story because the offense saw fewer drives to no fault of their own as a result of the defense taking it to the house 10 times, but even on a per drive basis, they ranked 22nd in the NFL scoring 1.62 points per drive.
However, credit the Bears for addressing their offensive needs this off-season. Drew Brees made Jermon Bushrod look better than he was and the Bears overpaid him, but he still represents an upgrade at left tackle over J’Marcus Webb, who went from starting left tackle to final cut when his #1 fan Mike Tice was let go this off-season. Martellus Bennett is light years better than Kellen Davis, who had one of the worst receiving seasons by a tight end in recent memory last season.
1st round pick Kyle Long slots in at right guard and if his pre-season is any indication, he won’t be overmatched at the NFL level. Alshon Jeffery also had a strong pre-season and will serve as a much needed consistent #2 opposite Brandon Marshall. On top of that, offensive minded Head Coach Marc Trestman comes in, hoping to add some life to an offense that was stagnant and predictable over the past few years under defensive minded Head Coach Lovie Smith and his ineffective group of offensive assistant.
This is by far the strongest supporting cast Jay Cutler has had since joining the Bears and, while they might score not more than the 23.4 points per game (16th in the NFL) they scored as a team last season, they’ll be a more consistent offensive team and they should be right around middle of the pack in scoring. Defensively, they remain one of the better stop units in the NFL, even if they don’t force as many turnovers as they did last season (the 3rd most by a team since 2002). They were #1 in the NFL in points allowed per drive last season.
On top of this, the Bengals could be without left tackle Andrew Whitworth for this game with a knee injury, which would be a huge loss. Whitworth finally got his due, making the Pro-Bowl last season, but he’s been consistently one of the best pass blocking left tackles in the game. Swing tackle Anthony Collins would be a significant downgrade from Whitworth and Bears’ defensive end Julius Peppers could probably have his way with him and create multiple pressures and possible a couple of sacks as well.
This is especially bad news because Andy Dalton is so poor under pressure. In terms of under pressure efficiency (which basically takes into account how often a quarterback completes a pass under pressure, takes a sack under pressure, throws an interception under pressure, or scrambles for a gain under pressure), Dalton was 3rd worst in the NFL last season, throwing 5 interceptions, completing 39.4% of his passes and taking a sack 29.4% of the time. Given that this line is just -3 and that the Bears are at home, I feel pretty confident taking the Bears here.
Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.
Chicago Bears 20 Cincinnati Bengals 13
Pick against spread: Chicago -2.5