CINCINNATI @ BALTIMORE
The Ravens swept the season series last year, winning each game by no less than seven points. However, this year finds Cincinnati a year wiser, and the Baltimore Ravens less one Terrell Suggs. Cincy QB Andrew Dalton outplayed Raven QB Joe Flacco in both games, except that his three turnovers in the November game were too much to overcome. For the Bengals to win, they must prevent the big play, and that starts with keeping Ray Rice in check. Rice haunted them for 70 and 51 yard touchdowns in their second meeting, and managed over 100 yards and a score in their first meeting. You can't really stop Rice, but you can contain him. I expect Rice to give another purposeful performance to the tune of 100-plus yards and a score. However, where the game will differ is the QB play. I expect Dalton to take advantage of having a healthy A.J Green and Jermaine Gresham, but the WR2 is the big question mark. They draft rookie Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, and have Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins. They are young and deep at the position, and for the first time in awhile, I expect the Bengals offense to give Baltimore fits. Courtney Upshaw is tapped with replacing Suggs, a job he can't possibly do. Ed Reed is 33 and has missed games two of the past three seasons. Joe Flacco took a step back last year as far as his numbers were concerned. He was asked to shoulder more of the offense, and even with the addition of wide out Torrey Smith, dropped his completion percentage to just above 57 percent. I think Flacco will be looking for Smith to equalize the deep three of Green, making Smith a good play tonight. But I'm leaning on the idea that Andy Dalton's improvement in his second year overcomes Cincinnati's shortcomings, and they squeak one out in Baltimore.
BENGALS 23, RAVENS 20
OAKLAND @ SAN DIEGO
Ryan Matthews won't play in the opener against Oakland, so once again San Diego finds itself starting from behind. Ronnie Brown just doesn't have the legs he did after his ACL replacement and foot surgeries, though he'll handle the load against a sub par run defense. So Oakland gets a break that it's Brown and not Matthews. Other than that, the Chargers are downgraded in their offense. Wide receiver Robert Meachem may have a high ceiling, but he hasn't proven he can replace Vincent Jackson, though Jackson had all sorts of work ethic issues. Malcom Floyd is the receiver I believe will be the apple of Philip Rivers' eye, as he has length and decent hands. Antonio Gates has been hobbled by injuries, so Week 1 is likely to be him at his best. However, the best part of this Oakland defense is their pass rush, which registered 39 sacks, 22 of which came in the second half of the season. Their biggest problem was penalties, of which they lead the league, penalized 58 times on defense. That, in itself, will get better, and to the detriment of Philip Rivers tonight. Darren McFadden will test this rushing defense of the Chargers that yielded 122.2 per game. After cutting veteran Luis Castillo, the defensive line will sport a variety Vaughn Martin, Antoio Garay and Corey Liuget. This unit got pushed around by Oakland last year, and that was with Michael Bush handling the load. A healthy McFadden will set up Carson Palmer with play-action, and it will be Palmer's job not to commit the kind of turnovers he made far too often last year. Denarius Moore returns and is the Raiders big play threat, but tonight will be a continuation of last season for Darius Heyward-Bey, who draws a favorable match up against a small but quick Antonie Cason, or a struggling Quentin Jammer. Expect 7-8 catches for 85 yards and a TD. One interesting element to tonight's game are the tight ends. Watch to see if a tight end emerges in the Oakland offense, as the starting TE Brandon Myers is likely to cede time to David Ausberry if he's really got the hands Dennis Allen thinks he does. We all know Chargers' TE Antonio Gates, but tonight might introduce you to his heir apparent, LeDarius Green, even though Green is last on the depth chart. The Chargers were a minus-7 overall last year in the give/take, and for them to win, they'll have to force the Oakland offense into long passing situations in which they can utilize Palmer's turn It won't happen this week. I'm picking the road team again.
OAKLAND 21, SAN DIEGO 17