Week 1: Bengals @ Bears

The Chicago Bears open up the regular season at Soldier Field on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.  The Bengals were a playoff team last year out of the AFC North. They posted a 10-6 record but were defeated in Houston 19-13 in their opening round Wild Card Game. This was déjà vu all over again because in 2011 they were similarly dismissed by third-string quarterback TJ Yates at the same time and place.

For those who you may need a refresher course on the 2012 Bears, the sum-up: they started as one of the best teams in the NFC at 7-1 only to falter down the stretch by going 3-5 to finish the season at 10-6 and lose in a tiebreaker to the Vikings for a playoff berth.  Much of the blame fell upon Lovie Smith who’d lose his job when GM Phil Emery determined that Lovie and Jay Cutler were mutually exclusive and went with Cutler.

So here we are.  Again.  Very high expectations and loads of good reasons for optimism.  The Bears are now coached by quarterback-guru Marc Trestman, who has consistently cultivated quarterbacks to improved performance levels.  Trestman and Emery have focused on revamping the offensive line and adding weapons to Jay Culter’s offensive arsenal.  This is expected to capitalize on the productivity and mismatches that come with the likes of Brandon Marshall.  Accordingly, Kyle Long was the first-round draft pick, while Martellus Bennet and Jermon Bushrod are free-agent additions from New Orleans.  With the added (good) riddance of Jemarcus Webb, the Bears have moved on from the era of Brian Urlacher.

The Bears face a Bengals team that’s led by QB Andy Dalton, who’s proven himself to be a very good NFL quarterback since coming out of TCU a few years ago.  Dalton ended up replacing Carson Palmer, who was riddled with injuries during his Bengals era, was dished off to Oakland, and now doesn’t have a starter’s job. Dalton will throw the ball down the field to his primary outside weapon,  AJ Green – who’s one of the best young receivers in the game – and between the seams to Jermaine Gresham and the newly-added Tyler Eifert (from Notre Dame, the next pick after Long). The Bengals will pound the ball running with Benjavus Green-Ellis. Their change-of-pace back is the rookie from North Carolina Giovanni Bernard.  This Bengals offense presents the Bears with a legitimate threat.

For the Bears to come out victorious and cover the marginal three-point spread they’re going to have to neutralize AJ Green and be able to run the ball (and TOP) to keep it out o the hands of Andy Dalton.  Defensively, last year the Bengals were one of the best teams at getting to the quarterback so the Bears’ revamped offensive line will be tested. The Bengals went out and signed James Harrison; if you’ve watched HBO’s “Hard Knocks” you know that Harrison’s an extremely scary individual who appears to genuinely like hurting people. The Bengals can bring good pressure up the middle with Stephen Paea, and their defensive line in general is pretty stout.

The Bears are going to need to exploit the middle of the secondary which is the Achille’s Heel of the Bengals’ defense. Corners Leon Hall, Terrence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick are very good and can be expected to manage the Bears’ physical receivers.  This reemphasizes the importance of the Bears’ running game. Matt Forte and Michael Bush will be key factors in the game if Bears want to start their season on a winning note.

Expect a low-scoring slugfest with the Bears coming out on top 17-13.