The Week 1 match-up between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns is going to a critical AFC North game for each team. This is because both teams had very lackluster 2010 campaigns. The Bengals finished with a dismal 4-12 record, and the Browns were only a notch better at 5-11. Both teams are also in the unfortunate situation of sharing a division with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, two heavyweights that finished at 12-4 and made the playoffs. The Steelers are also the reigning AFC Champions. Indeed, if either Cincinnati or Cleveland is hoping to make a turnaround for 2011, they're going to have to do it by winning in Week 1.
This game is going to be tough to predict for a number of reasons. The quarterback situation for either team is dicey at best. The Browns last year saw the majority of snaps being split by Jake Delhomme and Colt McCoy. With Delhomme no longer on the roster, the starting job is McCoy's. However, McCoy is only in his second season and hasn't had much time to develop. When people question him, they usually question his durability and not his talent. However, experience matters in the NFL, especially at quarterback. Expect McCoy to have some plays where he makes it obvious that he's only in his second season.
The good news for Browns fans, though, is that the Bengals' quarterback situation is even shakier than the one in Cleveland. Carson Palmer has remained committed to his ultimatum of receiving a trade or retiring, and has stayed away from the team. This has left Cincinnati in the unenviable position of either starting rookie Andy Dalton or going with Bruce Gradkowski. So far, it appears that Dalton will be the starter. He has fared okay in the preseason, but everyone knows that the regular season is a different story for players. Being forced to start Dalton combined with the loss of Chad Ochocinco means that Cincinnati's passing game may struggle early and often.
One key area where Cleveland might hold an advantage is the running game. Peyton Hillis emerged as a bruiser and fan favorite last year, rushing for over 1,000 yards. Hillis only scored twice on the ground, but that was easily attributed to Cleveland's offense being one-dimensional in the red zone than. If McCoy manages to play well as quarterback, it will open up more opportunities for Hillis to accumulate touchdowns when the team gets near the goal line. On top of this, Hillis has the benefit of working against a Cincinnati defense that surrendered over 115 yards rushing a game last season, as well as nearly a touchdown per game. Hillis has the opportunity to get off to a great start this season.
While Cleveland has Hillis working in their favor, Cincinnati has Cedric Benson. While Benson showed flashes of being a terrific runner in 2009, he regressed strongly in 2010. His yards-per-carry average over his career is mediocre, and his rushing yards seem to come more from getting a lot of touches than actually doing something with those touches. In addition, Benson has had some legal trouble as of late and is currently serving a brief 20 day jail sentence. While he is expected to be released in time to get some practice and prepare for this game, it is still likely that the time away from practice will impact his performance. If Benson struggles or shows a lack of conditioning, third-year running back Bernard Scott may see some action. Scott's yards-per-carry last season was actually a surprisingly high 4.9, and if he sees action it may benefit Cincinnati.
Despite Cleveland seeming to hold these advantages over Cincinnati in both the running back and quarterback situations, this doesn't mean Cleveland is at all more likely to win. It's important to remember that these are two teams that won a combined 9 out of 32 games last season. Both teams have flaws on both sides of the field from last season that may be more prevalent or reduced in 2011. The game could go either way, but it will be important for each team to try to get a win if they want to see more success this season.