FANPICKS GOW: TEXANS VERSUS BENGALS

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 starting  night in Cincinnati when the Bengals welcome Houston. This is the game of the week starting September 14 at 8.25PM Eastern, enter the contest right here!

Texans

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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

Bengals

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.

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.

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. He 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.

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NFL Football 2017-18 Season

AFC North Division Preview

With the days and weeks of summer ticking by, the arrival of a new NFL season continues to approach. Fans still have to wait until September 7th for Kansas City and New England to kick off in Gillette Stadium, but they don’t have to wait much longer for pre-season football starting August 3rd at FanPicks. To get you ready for the new season, here’s the outlook of AFC North teams.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ front office vowed to get quarterback Joe Flacco help this offseason. Yet they didn’t sign or draft a top receiver to replace the retiring Steve Smith Sr., and they did little to solidify an offensive line that no longer has starting center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Rick Wagner. Through the first two months of free agency, the Ravens’ only offensive addition was veteran running back Danny Woodhead, who is essentially a replacement for versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

One of the lowest-ranked passers in the league last year, Flacco should at least be healthy again. He rushed back from the torn left ACL and MCL he suffered in November 2015 and was on the field for the first day of training camp last July. However, Flacco never looked completely comfortable, and the lack of chemistry with several of his pass catchers was evident throughout the season.

Wideouts Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore provide plenty of outside speed, but it’s up to the strong-armed Flacco to rediscover his touch on the deep ball and get in sync with his receivers. Jeremy Maclin, a cap casualty in Kansas City, was signed as a free agent in June. He is coming off an injury-plagued 44-catch season, but if healthy he could take advantage of all the attention drawn by the Ravens’ deep threats.

With injury prone tight end Dennis Pitta released this offseason, the team will look to Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Darren Waller, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle in hopes of identifying a complementary target who will work the middle of the field and make contested catches.

The Ravens ran the ball the third-fewest times in the NFL last year. Head coach John Harbaugh has promised a greater commitment to the running game. Although, that’s not been offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s trademark as a play caller. Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon(suspended for the first four games) and Danny Woodhead are all capable backs. The Ravens will have to grind it out, because none is a home run threat.

Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton has never been regarded as a top-tier NFL quarterback, but the former second-round pick out of TCU continues to put up quality numbers. In 2016, he threw for 4,206 yards (87 shy of his career high) and completed 64.7 percent of his passes. His best quality might be his durability; in six seasons, he has missed only three starts.

Wide receiver A.J. Green missed out on his sixth straight 1,000-yard season due a hamstring injury that forced him to miss six games. He still caught 66 passes for 964 yards — but had only four touchdowns, the fewest of his career.

The Bengals added to their outstanding group of skill position players in the draft, selecting wide receiver John Ross and controversial but talented running back Joe Mixon. Ross ran the fastest 40-yard dash time ever at the Scouting Combine.

Dalton expects to have a healthy Tyler Eifert, who has dominated in the red zone when healthy but hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Receiver Tyler Boyd enters his second season. He made significant strides in route running and aggressive play in the slot over the final half of 2016. With veteran backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill as part of a rotation also, there will be no shortage of weapons.

Cleveland Browns

Robert Griffin III was released after getting hurt and never inspiring much confidence last season. His exit leaves 2016 third-round pick Cody Kessler atop the depth chart headed into a training camp quarterback competition. The spring pecking order was Kessler, Brock Osweiler and then 2017 second-round draft pick DeShone Kizer, but that could change if Kessler falters or Kizer progresses quickly. Osweiler also could end up being the starter; a year after the Texans outbid the Broncos to get him, they gave up a second-round pick to the Browns to take him and the remaining $16 million in guaranteed money on his contract off their hands. Osweiler is just 26 and has made 21 career starts, so he shouldn’t be totally dismissed.

Isaiah Crowell is the lead running back, and he’ll have a chance to build on an impressive 2016. Crowell is a powerful runner who showed improved speed and vision last season. He separated himself from Duke Johnson, who was probably the favorite to become the starting running back last summer. Johnson remains a valuable third-down back and can contribute for a Browns team that needs playmakers.

It’s puzzling to know that the Browns let Terrelle Pryor walk in free agency last March. Pryor went over 1,000 yards receiving last season in his first full season as a wide receiver. His size/speed combo made him a difficult matchup for many cornerbacks. The Browns signed veteran Kenny Britt to fill Pryor’s spot in the depth chart. More than anything, though, the receivers and the offense as a whole need 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman to take a significant leap. Coleman had one big game as a rookie and showed he could become a deep threat, but missing time both in training camp and during the season slowed his overall development. The Browns hope this season that he can be a downfield threat and that Britt can help move the chains. First-round tight end David Njoku should continue to progress and eventually become top passing-game options.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have arguably the best running back in football with Le’Veon Bell, the best wide receiver with Antonio Brown, plenty of supplementary playmakers and a solid offensive line, but they’ll only go as far as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is able to carry them. The past two years have been tough on the 35-year-old veteran, who missed stretches of 2015 and 2016 with various injuries. Though most assumed he’d be back for his 14th season, Roethlisberger waited until early April to make it official. Clearly, he’s on the back end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, completely healthy or not. The Steelers are 28–13 with Roethlisberger under center over the past three seasons — a stretch that has seen him post three of his four highest passing yards-per-game averages.

Roethlisberger is the driving force behind an offense that should be nothing short of a top-five unit in 2017. A player of Bell’s caliber is poised for another big season after averaging more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in 2016, a suspension-shortened campaign that was so dazzling that some dubbed him an MVP candidate. Entering his fifth season, Bell is in the heart of his prime and will have no shortage of motivation while playing on the franchise tag. His security blanket of the past two seasons, veteran DeAngelo Williams, is no longer with the Steelers, but rookie James Conner is expected to provide short-yardage thump that should nicely complement Bell’s patient running style.

The Steelers did just fine through the air last season without Martavis Bryant, who was suspended from start to finish. Now with Bryant back in the fold, the Steelers present one of the league’s most dangerous one-two punches at wide receiver. Bryant’s blazing speed and ability to take the top off the defense not only makes him a dangerous deep threat, but also opens up the field for Brown, who has been the constant target of double-teams and bracket coverage over the past few seasons. And if Bryant can’t stay on the straight and narrow, the Steelers are prepared. On top of returning receivers Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Pittsburgh added the well-traveled Justin Hunter in free agency and used a second-round pick on USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, who could make an immediate impact in the slot.

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AFC North biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

While the Steelers remain the class of the division, even they have holes to fill

The Pittsburgh Steelers were within one game of playing for the Lombardi Trophy last season. As for the rest of the AFC North, there appears to be a lot of work to do and holes to fill during the NFL draft on April 27th 2017.

Only one other division in the NFL had three of its four teams finish .500 or below. Cleveland continued its perpetual role as the NFL’s doormat, while Cincinnati and Baltimore appear mired in mediocrity. A talent-rich draft at most positions gives hope to a division of flawed teams heading into the 2017 campaign.

 Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens finished 8-8 and were decimated by injuries and the lack of explosive weapons on offense. They had a hard time generating a pass rush, which seems strange given Baltimore’s history of fielding menacing defenses. This is a club that simply lacks playmakers and depth on both sides of the ball. John Harbaugh’s squad needs a guy who can wreak havoc when it comes to pressuring the pocket. The lack of such a presence puts extra pressure on his secondary, which also needs help. If the Ravens can’t land an elite pass rusher with their first pick, they need to seriously consider taking a corner who they feel can start immediately. If they can’t find either, they may want to reach for a guy who could become the long-term answer at center.

First-round pick: No. 16 overall

Potential Picks: If somehow Tennessee’s Derek Barnett falls to them, the Ravens need to pull the trigger. Otherwise, they’ll probably be deciding between Michigan’s Taco Charlton and Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey. There is a possibility they could reach for Ohio State center Pat Elflein. That would be a smart choice, yet widely unpopular amongst the Raven faithful.

 Cincinnati Bengals

Injuries to A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert made it tough for the Bengal offense to find its way all season. Player suspensions didn’t help matters either. The Bengals missed the playoffs for the first time since Andy Dalton has been under center, and it’s seems like their window as contenders is closing. They need help on defense, especially at defensive end and safety. Marvin Lewis’ defenses traditionally have an elite playmaker roaming the secondary who changes the way opponents attack. On the other side of the ball, a solid No. 2 receiver option to Green would help him and Dalton, thus helping the Bengal offense as a whole.

First-round pick: No. 9 overall

Potential picks: LSU safety Jamal Adams would be a perfect fit, as he has many of the same characteristics from both a performance and leadership standpoint as former Raven great Ed Reed. If he’s gone before the Bengals pick, one of the top two receivers still on the board — Clemson’s Mike Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis — would be solid choices and make Cincinnati’s offense downright scary when paired with Green.

 Cleveland Browns

Unless you don’t watch any football whatsoever, you know the story with the Browns. They continue to be a punchline in American sport. They’ve still never landed a franchise quarterback in the history of the expansion edition of the franchise, and that has been the common denominator of their issues. They had some young talent display flashes of brilliance in 2016, but for the most part, this is a team that does not look ready to compete anytime in the next 2-3 years. Quarterback and secondary are the biggest areas of need for Cleveland, but at this point, the Browns need to head into the draft and target the best players available. They have a need for a solid pass rusher as well.

First-round picks: No. 1 and No. 12 overall

Potential picks: The acquisition of Brock Osweiler will likely impact their early draft decisions, as there does not appear to be a sure-fire franchise quarterback available in this draft. As a result, you’ll see Cleveland take Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the first overall pick. At pick No. 12, you could see them go after Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers. If they do choose to take a flyer on a quarterback with the 12th pick, it’ll probably be Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.

 Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh’s up-and-down season ended with a defeat in the AFC Championship Game to the Patriots. Though the offense was able to score with anyone in the league, it seemed to sputter during key moments. The Steelers also had difficulty time slowing down opposing offenses at times — especially against the pass. The Steelers need a good playmaker to be the focal point and eventual leader of their defense. Depth in the secondary is a concern, but linebacker appears to be the biggest need. Truth be told, Pittsburgh probably needs to target the top defensive player available with its first-round pick.

First-round pick: No. 30 overall

Potential picks: Sitting at the end of the first round, the Steelers will just need to wait and see who is left on the board. Lucky for them, this is a deep draft defensively. Ohio State inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan makes a lot of sense. You could also see Pittsburgh go after UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau or Colorado corner Chidobe Awuzie.

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Cincinnati Bengals vs New York Giants

Trying to keep pace with the surprising Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, the New York Giants go for their fourth consecutive victory when they host the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night (Enter Contest). The Giants have rebounded from a three-game skid by sandwiching a pair of home wins around a “road” victory at London to remain two games off the division lead. New York is coming off a 28-23 victory over Philadelphia, continuing a trend of being able to win the close games. All five victories have come by a margin of 20 points.

Prior to last week’s bye, Cincinnati played in London and came away with a 27-27 tie with Washington. They are looking to close the gap with the first-placed Baltimore Ravens (5-4) in the AFC North. Coach Marvin Lewis’ team have been held to 17 points or fewer in each of its losses.

ABOUT THE BENGALS (3-4-1)

Quarterback Andy Dalton has a streak of four straight games with a 100-plus passer rating snapped in London, but he has thrown for 2,349 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have both rushed for a TD in each of the last two games. Star wide receiver A.J. Green is second in the NFL with 896 yards, including three games with at least 169 yards, and the offense received an added boost with the return of tight end Tyler Eifert against the Redskins. Eifert had 13 touchdowns last season and showed what a difference-maker he can be in his first start with nine catches for 102 yards and a score. Cincinnati’s defense has been vulnerable through the air, allowing an average of 262.4 yards. Cincinnati has lost three in a row at the Giants, but beat the Jets 23-22 at MetLife Stadium in the season opener.

ABOUT THE GIANTS (5-3)

Quarterback Eli Manning is coming off a four-touchdown performance against Philadelphia, the third time he has tossed at least three scoring passes in a game this season, but he also was picked off twice for the third time. Like Cincinnati, the Giants have a stud wideout in Odell Beckham, who caught a pair of scoring passes against the Eagles to give him five in the past four games. The biggest problem for the Giants has been a stagnant running game led by Rashad Jennings that ranks last in the league with a meager average of 68.3 yards per game. Rookie Paul Perkins could see more time this week to help work the clock and protect a defense that yields 277.4 yards passing. New York last won four straight games during the 2013 season.

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Dolphins (1-2) vs Bengals (1-2)

Adam Gase may be a first-time head coach, but the 38-year-old was quick to light a fire under his underachieving team. He benched former first-round pick Ja’Wuan James after he got burned on a rush that led to a strip sack during last week’s contest. Gase hopes his aggressive action will provide a jolt for the sputtering Miami Dolphins, who will look to prevent their third 1-3 start in five years on Thursday when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals (Enter Contest).

About the Dolphins

With veteran Arian Foster still nursing a groin injury, Gase will be using rookie Kenyan Drake as the starter in a four-tier running back carousel. Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams and Isaiah Pead. will round out the carousel. Ajayi had an 11-yard touchdown run in overtime last week. The Dolphins’ 25th-ranked ground attack is mustering just 83 yards per game. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill leads his team in that department with his 54 yards accumulated. Fortunately for the Dolphins, the air game fairs much better. Tannehill continues to click with trusted target Jarvis Landry (AFC-leading 314 yards receiving) and fellow wideout DeVante Parke. Miami will go with Dion Sims this week because fellow tight end Jordan Cameron nurses the fourth concussion in his six-year career.

The sputtering Dolphins’ defense allowed 169 yards rushing last week and an NFL second-worst 147.3 yards per game. In the last meeting with the Bengals, DE Cameron Wake recorded three sacks. The final sack resulted in a safety during overtime and led Miami to a 22-20 victory.

About the Bengals

While Miami was fortunate to walk away with its first win, Cincinnati has followed its impressive season-opening victory over the New York Jets with a 24-16 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 2 and a 29-17 setback to Denver on Sunday. Mercurial Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is eager to stop the bleeding when he makes his season debut on Thursday after serving a three-game suspension for repeated violations of safety-related playing rules.

Running Back Jeremy Hill scored twice last week. He had 10 rushing touchdowns in his last 11 games. Andy Dalton (AFC-best 938 passing yards) has been limited to just 206 yards passing last week versus the Broncos. After an amazing first week, A.J. Green collected just 10 catches for 115 yards combined in his last two games. Cincinnati Pro Bowl TE Tyler Eifert (ankle) is not expected to make his season debut. CB Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring) has been held out of both practices this week, leaving his status for Thursday’s game in question.

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