Cincinnati Bengals fans are likely breathing deep sighs of relief. The Bengals expect to win their third consecutive AFC North Division title and have Super Bowl aspirations. One of the most important aspects of their blueprint for winning a championship is having Joe Burrow at quarterback. Burrow has recently returned to practice and is posting on social media that “He’s back.”
With a little anxiety about Burrow’s return on the back burner, Cincinnati will now be focused on getting off to the right start against the Cleveland Browns. The Browns also hope that star quarterback Deshaun Watson will be ready to take a step forward and push toward the Super Bowl.
Bengals are Favored on the Road
Cincinnati is a 2.5-point favorite to win at 1 p.m. Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium. This will be the 100th meeting between the Browns and the Bengals. The Bengals lead the all-time series 52-47, but Cleveland has dominated the recent matchups between the teams.
The Browns have won eight of the ten previous meetings. Cleveland and Cincinnati split their two meetings last year, with each team winning on their own turf. The winner of this game will be in a favorable position to start the 2023 season.
Cincinnati made the AFC Championship game for the second straight season last year. The Bengals would lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the next round. Cleveland struggled without Watson in the lineup. Cleveland finished last season 7-10, which put them in last place in a hyper-competitive division race.
What is Up with Joe Burrow?
Burrow strained his right calf during practice in late July. The Cincinnati quarterback didn’t return to practice until Aug. 30. While the team is still being coy about his status for Week 1, the feeling is that Burrow will play in the Browns and the Bengals game.
While the Bengals would like to see Burrow cut down on his turnovers, there is little else that Cincinnati can identify as a major spot to improve. Burrow passed for 4,475 yards last season with 35 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. During his three seasons in Cincinnati, Burrow has put up a 24-17-1 record as a starter, including a 22-10 mark over the past two seasons.
Durability has been a major concern for Burrow since he came into the league. During his rookie season, Burrow tore his ACL and was limited to playing in 10 games.
Cincinnati Showing How Its Changed
Starting in the early 1990s, the Bengals spent a stretch of time when Cincinnati was one of the worst franchises in the NFL for about 15 seasons. The Bengals have dug themselves out of that situation and now seem to have a front office that has the finger on the pulse of what the team needs to add in order to win games. During this offseason, the Bengals made a big splash in the offseason by bringing in offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. in free agency.
Protecting Burrow has been a high priority for Cincinnati since he was sacked 52 times during the 2021 season. While the Bengals would like to see the number drop even more, Cincinnati was pleased with how the offensive line improved last season. Burrow was sacked 41 times last season. They will hope that downward trend continues starting in week 1 when the Browns and the Bengals meet.
Bengals Will Have Other Injury Concerns
Cincinnati won’t be 100 percent on defense to open the season. The Bengals will be without defensive end Joseph Ossai, who suffered a high-ankle sprain in Cincinnati’s final preseason game. He had a good preseason and was thought to be Cincinnati’s third choice at defensive end behind starters Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard.
Ossai was a productive contributor during his first season. Ossai, who Cincinnati selected out of Texas in the 2022 NFL Draft, recorded 3.5 sacks and recovered two fumbles as a rookie. The Bengals’ defense will be going through a transition as they saw Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell, and Eli Apple leave in free agency. Cincinnati brought in Nick Scott and Sidney Jones to replace them.
Deshaun Watson Holds Key to Browns’ Success
Browns’ fans will be happy to know when Watson can suit up on the NFL schedule this season. Before Watson’s first year in Cleveland last fall, the now 27-year-old quarterback was in the midst of battling over 20 allegations of sexual harassment or assault. By the time Watson accepted his suspension, a 10-game ban from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, training camp was nearly over.
By the time Watson was able to suit up, he appeared to be struggling to get back up to speed after more than a year and a half off the field. Watson posted a 3-3 record as a starter. He only threw seven touchdowns compared with five interceptions. If Watson can improve to close to his Pro Bowl form, that would be a big boost for Cleveland.
The Browns have a terrific running game led by Nick Chubb. Watson also has a number of strong options in passing games. Amari Cooper is the Browns’ top receiver, while Cleveland has tight end David Njoku.
Browns Make Moves With Winning in Mind
Cleveland coach Kevan Stefanski is on the hot seat. That’s why when kicker Cade York struggled in the preseason, the Browns didn’t struggle to make the decision to move on to another player. Cleveland traded with the Los Angeles Chargers to acquire kicker Dustin Hopkins.
York only made four of his eight attempts and appeared to lose his confidence. The Browns also brought in veteran quarterback P.J. Walker to provide depth behind Watson. Stefanski wants to have as few weaknesses as possible after he went 11-5 and won a playoff game during his first season in 2020. In the two seasons since, the Browns have gone 15-19. Cleveland can’t afford another rough season if Stefanski is going to stay on as coach.