FOXSportsOhio.com football writers Pat McManamon and Zac Jackson will opine every weekend on the Browns, the Bengals, the AFC North and other NFL-related issues. Below is this season’s first edition of their drivel, er, idle chatter.
1. What does the immediate future hold for the Cleveland Browns — this weekend, the first month of the season, the ownership change, and so on? Is there any reason to think this team can win this season?
McManamon: Let’s see. The Browns open with a team many feel is a Super Bowl contender, a game when every matchup seems to favor the the other team. They then go to Cincinnati and try to win a game in the division, a challenge that the past few years has been like climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops. Then they play Buffalo, which might be winnable. After that itís Baltimore (ugh), the Giants and Bengals again. And the Browns are trying to do it with a rookie quarterback and rookie running back. If it sounds like a rather immense challenge, itís because it is.
Jackson: The Browns are a team in transition (again) and the whole transition, beginning Sunday afternoon and continuing through the first week of January, doesn’t figure to be smooth. It starts with too many holes and too much youth on the roster, and that’s what counts most. None of us really know what the ownership change will bring but it will probably bring more change, and when you look at the schedule and the circumstances it’s hard to imagine the current guys in charge being able to keep this team in contention and make the new owner think the fastest track to sustained success is the current one.
2. Are the Bengals ready for the big stage Monday night, and in the weeks that follow? What’s their 2012 ceiling?
McManamon: Not sure. A year ago it seemed the Bengals werenít ready for anything and Andy Dalton played better than anyone expected, A.J. Green looked like a future superstar and the Bengals went to the playoffs. Cincinnati didnít have a great preseason, the receivers have very little experience and their running game remains suspect, but Marvin Lewis is an excellent coach and Green and Dalton have a yearís experience. The opening game is very tough, but the Bengals had a chance to win in Baltimore late last season and after the opener the Bengals have the Browns, Redskins, Jaguars, Dolphins and Browns. That has all the earmarks of a very good start.
Jackson: I lean towards no. The Bengals have talent and leadership and are starting to establish the kind of organizational consistency and stability it takes to win big, but it seems to be a year or two away. Or maybe at least 6-8 weeks away given the question marks surrounding the offensive line and the secondary. With the core of talented young players and leaders in place, the ceiling for the Bengals over the next three seasons might be very high. The chances of winning Monday night and getting off to a hot start in 2012, though, don’t seem great.
3. The Browns have played some downright unforgettable season openers — mostly for the wrong reasons. What’s your favorite moment?
McManamon: There are so many that warm the heart. The night in 1999 when there was a national audience and planes, and Pittsburgh won 43-0 right through to last season when the Browns didn’t get out of their defensive huddle in time to stop a touchdown pass. There was the Saints game in ë06 when the offense had 186 total yards, and the Steelers 34-7 pasting the following year that led to the Browns trading the opening day starting quarterback two days later. So many memories. The personal favorite: 2001, the game when Kelly Holcomb threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns and had a rating of over 120 — and the Browns lost thanks to Dwayne Rudd taking his helmet off and throwing it in celebration as a Chiefs lineman rumbled down the field on the last play of the game. This stuff simply cannot be scripted.
Jackson: The touchdown pass on the first play of ’06 getting called back barely makes the main menu here. The Kelly Holcomb/Dwayne Rudd is probably the gold standard (or the cheapest punch to the stomach, depending on your perspective) but the second-half collapse in ’10 at Tampa Bay, the huddle mishap last year, the Cowboy domination in ’08 and several other moments — many mentioned above — all belong in the discussion. It’s almost like we’re expecting something very strange for this Sunday.
4. Who are the most important players — non-quarterbacks, only — for both the Browns and Bengals as the season begins?
McManamon: The Bengals have an up-and-coming superstar at receiver in A.J. Green and perhaps the league’s best defensive tackle in Geno Atkins, but their running game is suspect and the receiving crew lacks experience to the point of being painful. Running back concerns arise from their inactivity in preseason: BenJarvus Green-Ellis had seven carries in preseason, Bernard Scott none. At receiver, only Green has significant NFL experience — and his is one season. The skill players have to come through. In Cleveland, itís tough to think of any one or two players who can make this season memorable, but the two are draft picks: Trent Richardson and Mitchell Schwartz. The Browns are counting on Richardson, and Schwartz has to fill a glaring need from 2011.
Jackson: The Bengals need Andrew Whitworth to lead, Jeff Faine to hold up, Armon Binns to step up and need Green to play to his talents. On the other side Reggie Nelson is going to have to be really good — he’s capable — to help mask some of the other issues in the secondary and need Carlos Dunlap to get healthy to complement Atkins, among other reasons. The Browns REALLY need Trent Richardson to be good, and there’s also a group of players whose success will be directly tied to the evaluation of Tom Heckert. That includes T.J. Ward, Schwartz, John Hughes, Dmitri Patterson, Frostee Rucker and Josh Gordon. Especially Josh Gordon.
5. Predictions, please: Give your predicted records for each AFC North team, as well as picks for the NFL’s Final Four and Super Bowl.
McManamon: The AFC North wonít have three playoff teams again, not with the division playing the NFC East. Baltimore has age and defensive transition concerns, and Pittsburgh has age and injury worries. But they still are the class of the division and they will both make the playoffs. Baltimore: 11-5, Pittsburgh: 10-6, Cincinnati 8-8, Cleveland 3-13. Houston will play Denver in the AFC Championship game, and Green Bay will play Detroit in an intra-division NFC title game. In the Super Bowl, Houston will beat Green Bay.
Jackson: If Mike Adams was ready to play and David DeCastro was healthy, it would be easier to pick the Steelers. I’m doing so, anyway. Pittsburgh 10-6, Baltimore and Cincinnati 9-7 (a big year for Joe Flacco, a step backwards in the regular season for a defense that will miss Terrell Suggs) and Cleveland at 4-12, simply to avoid the same prediction my esteemed colleague made above. Pittsburgh over New England in the AFC Championship Game, Atlanta over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game and Atlanta over Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Which simply means it will really be New Orleans over Kansas City.