Commentary

Pressure's on Bengals to continue trend

Coming off ugly loss, Cincinnati needs Lewis-Palmer combo to befuddle Ravens again

Originally Published: September 16, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The combination of Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer has usually meant bad things for the Baltimore Ravens.

Lewis knows the inner workings of the Ravens from his days as Baltimore's defensive coordinator. Give him a top quarterback such as Palmer and he has a serious edge. With Palmer running Lewis' offense in games against the Ravens, the Bengals are 8-3.

The evolution of quarterback Joe Flacco suggests Baltimore is ready to challenge that edge and the Bengals' recent mastery of the AFC North. Even though the AFC North has been a division primarily dominated by the Steelers, the Ravens and Flacco have made the playoffs the past two years and won three games, all on the road. Flacco and the Ravens head to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday for one of the division's more critical games of the season.

The Bengals won the AFC North last season by sweeping six divisional games. Lewis' strategies worked. He called for running the ball, playing tight defense and letting Palmer win games in the final minutes. Since then, the Bengals added Terrell Owens, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham to their offense, giving them the ability to go into a potent passing attack if they wish. However, Cincinnati's defense and offense flopped in a blowout loss to the Patriots in Week 1.

Flacco and the Ravens can match the Bengals pass for pass, run for run and hit for hit on defense. General manager Ozzie Newsome added WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the offense, and the only hole on the team is a secondary that has two top cornerbacks coming off major knee surgeries and no Ed Reed, who is on the physically unable to perform list.

Can the Bengals' advantage in the AFC North hold or will it be fleeting? Lewis and Palmer can't afford to let this game slip away.

1. Manning vs. Manning: The last time Peyton Manning met younger brother Eli in a game was in the 2006 opener. Eli Manning was only in his second full year as starter and still developing his confidence as a quarterback. For this once-every-four-years meeting between the Colts and Giants, Eli Manning has grown up into a top quarterback. He's coming off his first 4,000-yard season and he has completed more than 60 percent of his passes in his past two seasons. If you don't remember, the Colts beat the Giants 26-21 in 2006. The Colts are coming off a loss to the Texans in which Arian Foster ran over Indy's defense for 231 yards. It's rare for Peyton Manning to start a season 0-1, but you have to go back to his rookie season in 1998 for one of his Colts teams to be 0-2.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIJeff Fisher's schemes produced wide running lanes for Chris Johnson in Week 1.

2. Tough test for Steel Curtain: Going into the season, the Steelers knew the odds wouldn't favor them in Week 2 at Tennessee. They won't have Ben Roethlisberger because of his suspension and they must hope Dennis Dixon plays as solidly as he did in the Week 1 win over the Falcons. What helped the Steelers in the opener was the defense turned off the pilot light on Falcons running back Michael "The Burner" Turner. Doing that against Chris Johnson won't be as easy. First, nose tackle Casey Hampton suffered a hamstring injury in the opener and his status is uncertain. Taking away a Pro Bowl nose tackle from a 3-4 defense is big blow to run-stopping efforts. What's also scary is how Titans coach Jeff Fisher is scheming. He's using more three-receiver spread packages, and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Johnson is averaging 7.9 yards a rush since last season out of those formations.

3. More early Jets, Pats theater: Since 2006, the Patriots and Bill Belichick have had a road game against the Jets in Week 1 or Week 2 in every season except 2008, when Tom Brady was hurt and Brett Favre was a Jet. The Patriots' offense looks as hot as it did in 2007, as Brady shredded the Bengals in the season opener. The Jets' offense looked dreadful in the Monday night loss to the Ravens. Everyone knows Jets QB Mark Sanchez can't match Brady possession for possession, but can the Jets' defense contain Brady as well as it did in last year's 16-9 Week 2 victory? Brady completed 23 of 47 passes for only 216 yards and was totally out of sync against the Jets. But if Sanchez can't generate any offense, the Jets could come out with two home losses, which would really be a hard knock.

4. Grant us some running back help: The loss of Packers running back Ryan Grant (ankle) was one of the bigger blows of Week 1. Coach Mike McCarthy and QB Aaron Rodgers counted on Grant's 1,200-yard seasons to balance the offense. His season-ending injury brings the running attack back to the 2007 pre-Grant era. Brandon Jackson has improved as a runner, but he lacks the explosiveness to average more than 4 yards a carry and has had problems with durability in college and the pros when he has been the lead back. It helps playing the Bills, who switched to a 3-4 defense and are still trying to figure if they can stop the run. Plus, Buffalo lost huge leadership when inside linebacker Paul Posluszny suffered an MCL injury.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Vick, who provided solid relief work in Week 1, will start for the Eagles against Detroit.

5. Quarterback headaches: The Eagles-Lions game is the one most affected by quarterback injuries. Shaun Hill will start for the Lions while Matthew Stafford recovers from a right shoulder separation, and Michael Vick will be the Eagles' starter while Kevin Kolb recovers from a concussion. Although the coaching staff supports Kolb, a QB controversy is brewing in Philadelphia. Kolb hasn't led the offense to a touchdown in any preseason or regular-season game this year. Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme has an injured ankle in a boot and may have to give way to Seneca Wallace against the Chiefs. Carolina's Matt Moore appears to have recovered from his concussion enough to prevent Jimmy Clausen from getting his first start. The Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Think about it for a second: In the aforementioned three games, Matt Cassel (Chiefs), Josh Freeman (Bucs) and Vick might be the best quarterbacks on the field.

6. Hot seat: Everyone knew before the season that Chicago coach Lovie Smith was on the hot seat. It didn't help that his Bears beat Detroit at Soldier Field in Week 1 in a game that they probably should have lost. Jay Cutler threw for 372 yards, but four turnovers and four sacks made things ugly. Now the Bears must play at Dallas, where Cowboys critics are irate about the Sunday night road loss to the Redskins. Right tackle Alex Barron had three holding penalties, and the coaching staff made a bonehead call by running a bad play that resulted in a Redskins touchdown before the half. Dallas ran the ball just 22 times, not enough for a backfield that has three talented players.

7. West tests: Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck picked apart the 49ers' defense with short throws in Week 1. Figure New Orleans' Drew Brees will throw for close to 300 yards Monday night against San Francisco, so the pressure will be on the Niners' Alex Smith to bounce back from a poor showing (1-for-11 on third-down conversions) against the Seahawks. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt's problem is attrition with his offense for a game in Atlanta. Running back Beanie Wells may play with a sore knee, but Early Doucet is out with a possible sports hernia, leaving Derek Anderson with only Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and two undrafted rookies at wide receiver.

8. Red-zone variance: ESPN Stats & Information came up with a good stat for the Brett Favre-Chad Henne matchup when the Dolphins visit the Vikings on Sunday. In the past 17 games (last season and Week 1), Favre is great as he nears the opposing team's goal line. He's 21-for-39 (21 touchdowns) on passes thrown into the end zone, best in the league during that time frame. Meanwhile, Henne is only 5-for-25 (with five touchdowns). This game could be very one-sided.

9. Matchup to watch: The big matchup for Washington against Houston is rookie left tackle Trent Williams against Texans defensive end Mario Williams, who had a sack and five QB hits against Peyton Manning in Week 1. The Texans should have good intelligence on the Redskins' offense, coached by Kyle Shanahan. He was Houston's offensive coordinator last season.

10. Bottom-feeders: Of the remaining Week 2 games, the Broncos-Seahawks might be the most interesting. The Seahawks face a Broncos' offensive line that includes two rookies and left tackle Ryan Clady playing on a sore knee. ... The Raiders hope to pressure Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford into mistakes in Oakland's home opener. That's a good bet if Bradford throws more than 50 times again. (He threw 55 times in a loss to Arizona in Week 1.) ... Going across the country won't be easy for the Jaguars, who play at San Diego. Missing WR Vincent Jackson (suspension/holdout) and left tackle Marcus McNeill (holdout), Chargers QB Philip Rivers seemed frustrated during a Week 1 loss to Kansas City.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer