The first game of the NFL preseason is more or less the most meaningless game on the entire NFL calendar.
With that in mind, here’s a not entirely crazy thought about Sunday night’s Bengals-Cowboys Hall of Fame Game: It might be the precursor to the Really Big Game at the end of the year.
The Cowboys are loaded. America’s Team has star power, experience, speed and — on paper, anyway — the tools to win a shootout against anybody. They can get it deep, get to opposing quarterbacks and have as good a shot as any team in recent memory to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in its own stadium.
You knew that. You might not know that the Bengals are as good as anybody, and that was before they added Terrell Owens two weeks ago. They ran the table in one of the league’s best divisions last year with basically no downfield passing game. They’ve upgraded Carson Palmer’s whole supporting cast and made a deep, veteran secondary even deeper.
It took a whole bunch of luck to win three of the division games they won in the closing seconds last year. True. But with two of the game’s best young cornerbacks in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, the safeties and linebackers are free to take chances and make their own luck. A healthy and maturing Rey Maualuga can make the linebacking corps as athletic as any.
In one of those little notes that means nothing but is worth filing away, the last time the Bengals came to Canton to play in the Hall of Fame game was 1988. They finished that season in the Super Bowl.
1988 was before reality shows, period, nevermind two diva receivers on one team having their own reality shows. The Bengals have to navigate 21 games worth of egos, distractions and a really good schedule — New England and Baltimore to open, at the Jets Thanksgiving night, the Saints a week later and the AFC North grind — to even get to the playoffs. But if Palmer is sharp, Cedric Benson stays healthy and the old problems with running amok of the law go away, this team will have its say in the way the AFC picture shakes out.
On the other side, Tony Romo is still trying to shake the label of a guy who can’t win the big one. But he’s got big-time talent around him, and the NFC East doesn’t look as formidable as it has the last three or four years. There’s still much to be settled, but once Dez Bryant gets back to health he’s going to join Miles Austin and Jason Witten in keeping opposing secondary coaches up at night.
The Cowboys need to keep everybody happy. They need their offensive line to better and a veteran defense to hold up. The Bengals need something from Andre Smith and Antonio Bryant and need to keep Benson from having to carry it 25 times every week in the early going.
I’m not saying a Super Bowl rematch is going to happen. With the right bounces and breaks, though, it might. The long preseason might even help both teams find a bottom of the roster gem or two who ends up helping win a game that counts later on.
We won’t learn a whole bunch about either team in the starters’ quick cameo in Canton. But you can bet the postgame hugfest will include Owens telling his former teammates to have the popcorn and cameras ready for an early February rematch.