NFL Preview - Denver (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - For one week, barring the unlikely occurrence of a tie score after 75 minutes, either the Denver Broncos or the Cincinnati Bengals will be able to put the dramas of the recent past behind them with a victory.
Meanwhile, as the winner triumphantly leaves the Paul Brown Stadium field, the woes of the loser's all-too-prevalent current concerns will be magnified that much more.
The visiting Broncos have already had a season's worth of drama in the past few months, and then some.
It started when team owner Pat Bowlen fired Mike Shanahan after 14 seasons and two Super Bowl victories, replacing him with then-32-year-old New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels took a "scorched earth" approach to a roster that had presided over an 8-8 season in 2008, almost completely overhauling the defense and, more controversially, seeking to replace 26-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler.
After failing to land the Patriots' Matt Cassel via trade, McDaniels exacerbated an already awkward situation through multiple reported "my way or the highway" conversations with Cutler.
Cutler subsequently asked for, and received, a trade, being shipped to the Chicago Bears on April 2nd for a package that included quarterback Kyle Orton and a pair of first-round picks.
Then, later in the spring, Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall skipped the team's mandatory mini-camp due to unhappiness over his contract, and subsequently asked for a trade of his own.
When that wish was not granted by the start of training camp, Marshall went the insubordination route, reportedly failing to learn the playbook and batting away passes thrown to him in practice as a form of protest.
It is unknown whether Marshall will play on Sunday, though mid-week reports suggesting the Broncos are looking to grant the wideout's wish for a new contract would suggest the rift is on the verge of mending.
Against that backdrop, the problems of the Bengals look minute, although a Cincinnati team that went 4-11-1 last season wasn't completely free of preseason problems.
As No. 6 overall draft pick and offensive tackle Andre Smith held out longer than all but one other first-round rookie, quarterback Carson Palmer promptly injured his ankle in the team's first preseason game. Palmer, who missed 12 of the Bengals' final 13 games last year due to an elbow injury, did not return for the remainder of the preseason.
Palmer is expected to play on Sunday, though it is doubtful that his convalescence will allow either him or the offense to appear rust-free in Week 1.
On the bright side for the homestanding Bengals, Cincinnati went 4-3-1 over the second half of last season in order to avoid the AFC North basement, and would seem to have a good chance to build on that minor upturn in fortunes in its 2009 opener.
Denver leads the all-time series with Cincinnati, 16-8, including a thrilling 24-23 home win when the teams last met, late in the 2006 season. The Bengals won the previous meeting, a 23-10 decision in the Queen City in 2004. The Broncos last won in Cincinnati in 2003.
Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis is 1-2 against Denver all-time. The Broncos' McDaniels will be making his initial foray as a head coach.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Orton (2972 passing yards, 18 TD, 12 INT with Chicago) is officially listed as questionable for Sunday after injuring the index finger on his throwing hand during the team's third preseason game, but it would be a major surprise if he doesn't open the game. Less certain is who Orton will be throwing to. Marshall (104 receptions, 6 TD) did not play in the preseason and, in addition to his off-the-field drama, is coming off hip surgery. Free agent pickup Jabar Gaffney (thumb) will definitely be out. That means the Broncos' best bets at wide receiver could be holdovers Eddie Royal (91 receptions, 5 TD) and Brandon Stokley (49 receptions, 3 TD), with tight end Tony Scheffler (40 receptions, 3 TD) again providing a middle-of-the-field presence. The running back situation is uncertain as well, as rookie first-rounder Knowshon Moreno (Georgia) is a question mark after missing most of the preseason. Veterans Correll Buckhalter (369 rushing yards, 2 TD with the Eagles) and LaMont Jordan (369 rushing yards, 4 TD with the Patriots) are listed in the top two spots on the depth chart, though Jordan himself is coming off a knee injury suffered in the preseason. Fullback Peyton Hillis (343 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 6 TD) is another option.
The Bengals quietly improved defensively as 2008 wore on, allowing a total of 19 points in their final three games (all wins) and finishing middle-of-the- pack in most NFL statistical categories. The area where Mike Zimmer's group must improve immediately is in the pass rush, where the Bengals notched a woeful 17 sacks last season. But there have been no real changes made to the front four, with Robert Geathers (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Antwan Odom (26 tackles, 3 sacks) again expected to start at end, though the team does have high hopes for Michael Johnson (3rd Round, Georgia Tech) as a potential situational pass rusher. The job of defending the Broncos receivers will fall to cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (42 tackles, 1 INT) and Leon Hall (71 tackles, 3 INT), who need to stay healthy and play together for an entire season, with safeties Roy Williams (5 tackles with Dallas) and Chris Crocker (34 tackles, 1 INT) assisting on the back end. Williams, the former Cowboy, will enhance a run-stopping group that could be the strength of the unit. Linebacker Keith Rivers (37 tackles, 1 INT), back after having his rookie season ended prematurely on a blindside hit from Steelers receiver Hines Ward, top 2008 tackler Dhani Jones (114 tackles, 1 INT) and promising second-round draft choice Rey Maualuga (USC) will lead the linebacking corps.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Just as it did last year, the Bengals' season hinges largely on the health of quarterback Carson Palmer (731 passing yards, 3 TD, 4 INT). The ankle injury that the former Pro Bowler suffered in August is sufficiently healed to allow him to play, but the ability of a suspect offensive line to keep the plodding former USC star out of harm's way will be paramount. The group gave up 51 sacks last season, and the unavailability of the rookie Smith throws a wrench in the team's plans along the front line. If Palmer gets time to throw, he will look downfield to a trio of good targets in Chad Ocho Cinco (53 receptions, 4 TD), Chris Henry (19 receptions, 2 TD), and offseason free agent acquisition Laveranues Coles (70 receptions, 7 TD with the Jets). Ocho Cinco is looking to recover from a sub-standard season that saw him battle a shoulder problem, while Henry is trying to prove he can stay out of trouble and deliver on the promise that followed him into the league. Coles effectively replaces T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who defected to the Seahawks in free agency. In the backfield, the Bengals are casting their lot with Cedric Benson (747 rushing yards, 2 TD), who did some nice things last year despite the fact that Cincinnati finished 29th in the league in rushing.
The biggest culprit in the Broncos' dismal final month of the 2008 season was the play of the defense, so not many Denver fans shed a tear when McDaniels sought to blow up that side of the ball in the offseason. New coordinator Mike Nolan is likely to field a defense with six starters wearing a Denver uniform for the first time, most notably defensive backs Brian Dawkins (75 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT with the Eagles), fellow safety Renaldo Hill (78 tackles, 3 INT with the Dolphins), and cornerback Andre' Goodman (39 tackles, 5 INT with the Dolphins), inside linebacker Andra Davis (90 tackles with the Browns), and nose tackle Ronald Fields (19 tackles with the 49ers). The mainstays of the group include cornerback Champ Bailey (44 tackles, 1 INT), who is looking to rebound following an injury-plagued 2009, as well as linebackers D.J. Williams (93 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (24 tackles, 5 sacks). Dumervil and fellow holdover Mario Haggan (15 tackles, 1 sack) will be the starters at outside linebacker in the team's 3-4, and will be counted on to provide pressure off the edge. The Broncos were 27th in the NFL against the run and 26th versus the pass in 2008.
Use players from the Broncos and Bengals at your own risk. It's hard to tell how either quarterback is going to look coming off of their preseason injuries, and how much Ocho Cinco and Marshall are going to contribute is worth debating as well. Moreno's injury casts some doubt on the Denver rushing situation, and whether Benson is going to find many holes working behind the Cincinnati front remains to be seen. Neither defense was truly start-worthy last season, and that situation hasn't really changed. The best bets here are probably the kickers, Denver's Matt Prater and Cincinnati's Shayne Graham, and maybe Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler. Otherwise, it's "wait and see" all- around.
Neither of these teams figure to factor into the playoff discussion long-term, but someone will come out of this one feeling reasonably good. Expect that team to be the Bengals, who have more continuity on both sides of the football than the new-look Broncos, and who should get a nice lift from the home crowd. Cincinnati doesn't have the talent to blow Denver off the field, and the Broncos may turn out to be a better team by the time 2009 draws to a close, but given all the alterations in Denver, Cincinnati is simply further ahead at this stage.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 27, Broncos 24
09/10 12:42:50 ET