NFL Preview - Cincinnati (0-0) at Baltimore (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Cincinnati Bengals are opening the regular season as reigning division champions for the first time in four years. Their defense of that crown begins on Sunday against a division rival in the Baltimore Ravens, who welcome the Bengals to M&T Bank Stadium with quite the chip on their shoulder.
The continued ascension of the Bengals progressed last season with the club's first NFC North crown since 2009. However, after going 11-5 in the regular season, Cincinnati was bounced out of the first round of the playoffs for a third straight year.
That dropped the Bengals to 0-5 in the postseason under head coach Marvin Lewis, who is entering his 12th season with the club with probably the biggest expectations of his tenure.
"I'd call this season the most challenging one in my 12 years here," Lewis said. "Our team is as talented as any we've had here, and expectations have never been higher. But we have a tough schedule, and we can take nothing for granted. We don't get to start where we left off, as division champions. We've got to earn it all again before we can take those next steps."
Cincinnati is still looking for its first postseason victory since 1990.
For Baltimore, it enters this season having missed the playoffs last year, robbing the club a chance to defend its second ever Super Bowl championship. It also marked the first time that the Ravens did not make the postseason under head coach John Harbaugh since he took over in 2008.
"We have a bad taste in our mouth," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. "It's been the first time since Coach got here, since 2008, that we didn't make the playoffs. It is clear how something like that can be taken for granted."
Baltimore was 30th in the NFL last season in rushing at just 83.3 yards per game and won't have starting running back Ray Rice for the first two games of the regular season. He is serving a suspension for his arrest on assault charges in February stemming from his then-fiancee Janay Palmer.
In May, Rice was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that allowed him to avert prosecution and avoid serving any time in jail and he and Palmer have since married.
Still, many felt the two-game ban for Rice was a bit too lenient and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has since pledged to hand out harsher penalties for incidents involving domestic violence offenses.
Baltimore does come in having gone undefeated in the preseason and leading the NFL with 171 rushing yards per game. Rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro led the league with 243 yards rushing.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 11-0 in September at home and have won 30 of their last 35 regular-season games as the hosting club overall. The franchise has also won eight straight home openers dating back to 2006.
The Bengals, who are 7-15 in season openers on the road, have lost four straight in Baltimore and the Ravens lead the all-time series 20-16.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Bengals are looking to take the next step and it begins with quarterback Andy Dalton, who signed a big six-year, $115 million contract extension prior to the start of the season.
Dalton set franchise records last season with 4,293 passing yards and 33 passing touchdowns, and was sharp in his 2014 preseason action while posting a 116.3 passer rating.
"Andy and I both, we know what we're up against," Lewis says. "We've set a high standard. Andy helped start it by leading us to the playoffs as a rookie (in 2011), when everyone said we'd finish last. And he's led us there two more years, and now the expectations are to win everything. That's the good thing. Winning is just not good enough any longer. Winning the division is no longer good enough."
Dalton is helped by being able to throw to one of the top receivers in football in A.J. Green, while Giovani Bernard is now the No. 1 running back after sharing time last year as a rookie with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Another rookie in Jeremy Hill will help fill the power back void left by the released Green-Ellis.
Cincinnati's secondary has a pair of veteran presences in Terence Newman and Leon Hall, but both are also aging and will have to keep up with Baltimore's speedy long threat in wide receiver Torrey Smith.
Wideout Steve Smith will also make his Ravens debut after posting seven 1,000- yard campaigns in his first 13 seasons with Carolina.
Dalton wasn't the only player to receive a big contract extension before the start of the campaign, with the Bengals locking up linebacker Vontaze Burfict through 2017. The undrafted Burfict has led Cincinnati in tackling in each of the last two seasons.
"Vontaze is a special talent; he has shown us that from his first day here," said Lewis. "He is a load physically and he's extremely competitive, but what really makes him stand out is the instinct and feel he has for the game. It's something born in him, you can't coach a player to naturally react the way he does in all situations. This signing is a great move for the future of our defense."
The Ravens are also looking towards their future at defense in their second season since Ray Lewis retired. They hope to have grabbed the new face of the unit in the first round of the 2014 draft, taking inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Mosley should start alongside Daryl Smith and brings to the table great instincts and the ability to react to the play. He'll learn alongside the veteran Smith, who had 123 tackles in taking over for Lewis last season, and isn't afraid of the pressure playing for Baltimore's respected defense.
"Just one thing about me coming from Alabama is it's all about tradition," said Mosley, "always had great defensive players, great linebackers that came out of Alabama, and for me to come to another great team, another great defense, the history and some of the players they still have now on the team, it's just for me to add on and try to keep that tradition going. I'm just doing what I can to fit in."
A lack of running game for the Ravens last season caused Flacco to put up personal bests of 3,912 passing yards, 362 completions and 614 attempts, way more than his previous high of 542 pass attempts in 2011. And despite increased chances, Flacco threw three fewer touchdown passes (19) than 2012 and also set new highs with 22 interceptions and 48 sacks.
That should have the Ravens looking to run the ball more under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, with Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Taliaferro filling in for Rice, who rushed for only 660 yards on 214 carries last year.
It may be too early to call Week 1 a must-win game, but this contest will certainly set a statement in the AFC North. On one hand, you have the defending division-champion Bengals, who are loaded with young talent in or entering their prime.
Then there are the Ravens, who are transitioning from an older core but have enough star power that a rebuild is not necessary despite last season's struggles.
The pressure is on the Bengals and having to face the Ravens on their home turf may be enough to rattle Dalton and company in a rough start to their title defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, Bengals 17
09/04 11:51:58 ET