It’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions from one game. Often it turns out a Week 1 result in the NFL is as much about a team’s opponent as it is about the team itself. Are the Bengals that bad, or are the Ravens that good? Can the Texans really not block anyone, or is the Jaguars' defense better than we thought?
We may get those answers Thursday night in Cincinnati when the Bengals welcome Houston. What we may not get is any kind of offense if Week 1 wasn’t an anomaly for these teams. Because make no mistake, these offenses were bad on Sunday. The Bengals were shut out at home for the first time since 2001, turning the ball over five times and allowing five sacks. Houston wasn’t any better, committing four turnovers and allowing a franchise-record 10 sacks. Starting QB Tom Savage lasted one half before being replaced by first-round pick Deshaun Watson, who will likely get the start in Cincinnati.
However the game plays out, someone will be 0–2 despite starting the season with playoff expectations. Perhaps Houston could survive that in the traditionally weak AFC South, and if nothing else the Texans’ season will remain meaningful as Watson begins his development as an NFL starter. But this is a much bigger game for Cincinnati. Starting the season 0–2 — with both losses coming at home — in a division with the Steelers and Ravens would be a rather deep hole. Head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton have taken heat for playoff failures; imagine the reaction if they are out of the race early for a second straight season.
Houston at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 14 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Bengals -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Deshaun Watson’s first NFL start
Watson did suffer an ankle injury last week, but he was full-go in practice on Tuesday and should get the start. So what can we expect? He led the Texans’ only touchdown drive on Sunday to start the second half, but after that he was running for his life, taking four of the 10 sacks Houston allowed on the day. The Texans would love to get Lamar Miller and the running game going to help Watson settle in, and maybe they can do it against a Cincinnati defense that allowed 157 yards on the ground to Baltimore. But the Houston offensive line may be in worse shape than the Bengals, and it took the Ravens more than 40 carries to rack up those yards. The Bengals didn’t get gashed as much as worn down in a game where they got no help from their offense. For Houston to win, odds are Watson will need to make some plays.
2. Will Andy Dalton bounce back?
Usually Dalton can keep his critics at bay until the postseason, but they are having a field day after he threw four interceptions last week. Still, Dalton’s history tells us this is unlikely to become a trend. He threw only 15 interceptions in the last two seasons combined and had the second 4,200-yard season of his career in 2016. That said, free-agent losses have left the Bengals' offensive line a mess, and that’s not a good thing with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and company coming to town. If Dalton has no time to throw, he could struggle again.
3. Bengals backfield by committee
Fantasy owners, if no one else, want to see how this is going to shake out. Jeremy Hill got the start against Baltimore but had only seven touches (six runs, one reception); Giovani Bernard (above, right) led the team in rushing with 40 yards on seven carries and also had the Bengals’ longest play of the day on a 39-yard catch. But rookie Joe Mixon got the most touches (eight carries, three catches) but found little room to run, even if you discount nine yards in losses on the game’s final two plays. Given how dominant the Ravens' defense was, we don’t know much more than we did before the season. Eventually, Mixon was expected to emerge, and given that he got more touches than Hill and Bernard, perhaps he still eventually will. But will Hill vulture goal-line carries? If the Bengals ever get near a goal line, we’ll find out.
The Bengals' offensive line struggles are a huge concern coming into a game against the Texans' front seven, but Houston’s offensive line is a mess as well. Deshaun Watson might be the franchise QB the Texans need, but a road win over a veteran team on a short week in his first start might be too much to ask. Andy Dalton has generally been a solid NFL quarterback, especially when he has both WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert healthy. We’ll bet on him bouncing back at least enough to get a win here.