Monday Night Football
Cincinnati @ Baltimore
If preseason games were any indication -- and in-the-know Baltimore people say they were -- the Ravens are turning to the no-huddle as their base offense. Joe Flacco was terrific in the up-tempo attack this August, completing 71.7 percent of his throws with three touchdowns and one pick. "Defenses have gotten so complicated," Flacco told SI.com's Peter King last week. "When you slow it down and get into a huddle before every play, you're playing into their hands, allowing them to dictate the tempo of the game. This way, we take control of the game." Flacco absolutely loves the revised offense, and he is capable of starting fast in a favorable Monday night matchup. Cincinnati's defense looks brutal in the back end, with first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick out after two knee injuries and coverage liability Taylor Mays starting at strong safety. Washed-up veterans Nate Clements, 32, and Terence Newman, 34, are being counted on for major roles. The Bengals' best defensive back is Leon Hall, and he is coming off a ruptured Achilles' tendon. Expect the Ravens to have more passing success than usual in the Monday night opener.
Although the new offense could eventually breathe life into TEs Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, neither is start-able after Pitta missed most of camp with a broken hand, and Dickson a subluxed shoulder. ... Look Torrey Smith's way for Monday night passing-game points. He showed greatly improved intermediate route-running chops in August, creating separation at every level of the defense and along the sideline. In less than three preseason quarters, Smith dressed down the Falcons and Jaguars' first-team defenses for 11 catches and 146 yards. Hall sticks to one side of the field, and the Bengals' other corners lack foot speed to run with Baltimore's emerging No. 1 receiver. ... Anquan Boldin's third straight late-season fade may begin earlier this year going on age 32, but he still had fresh legs in late summer and early fall and is a solid bet for a red-zone touchdown on Monday night. ... Ray Rice has faced the Bengals eight times in his career. He's rung up 681 yards on 139 carries (4.90 YPC) and seven touchdowns while averaging nearly 120 all-purpose yards per game. There's every reason to think Rice is set up for another big effort.
I saw some offseason hype on the 2012 Bengals after last year's team played above its head, at least for the first few games. Let's hit that with a fire extinguisher. Cincinnati started 6-2 against the league's softest first-half schedule before playing like the bad team everyone expected in the final eight weeks. In the last nine, Andy Dalton managed just seven touchdowns and turned the ball over a dozen times, as his talent limitations were exposed facing halfway decent defenses. The Bengals are going to be a lot worse this year. They lost two starting linemen (LG Travelle Wharton, C Kyle Cook) to injured reserve in preseason, and first-round RG Kevin Zeitler was up and down. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a downgrade from Cedric Benson, lacking any hint of big-play ability or elusiveness. They're also downgrading at No. 2 receiver, going from Jerome Simpson to a rotation of Brandon Tate and Armon Binns. Rookie Mohamed Sanu is buried on the depth chart.
Although Baltimore's defense can't possibly be as good minus difference-making RE/OLB Terrell Suggs (Achilles'), this unit is still capable of shutting down running games and making life very difficult against the pass. The only Bengals skill-position player worth a Week 1 fantasy start is A.J. Green, who figures to be a target monster because Cincinnati basically has no one else. Jermaine Gresham missed much of camp with a knee injury, and the issues up front can be easily exposed by Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee, and Paul Kruger. I like the Ravens to manhandle the Bengals in this game. I'm not sure Cincinnati even makes it close.
Score Prediction: Ravens 21, Bengals 10
San Diego @ Oakland
Philip Rivers has an impressive statistical track record over six seasons as an NFL starter, but I wondered aloud this offseason whether we might have seen the best of him, and I continue to worry that may be the case. The indefinite absence of LT Jared Gaither (back) is a major concern, and clearly not one the Chargers prepared for seeing as their fallback plan is undrafted rookie Mike Harris. Norv Turner's offense is vertical in nature, requiring some semblance of sustained pass protection to execute. Recall that Gaither started the final five games of last season after being claimed off waivers in late November. Rivers' stats with Gaither on his blindside: 110-of-163 (67.5 percent) for 1,413 yards (8.67 YPA), 11 touchdowns, and three picks. Rivers' stats pre-Gaither: 256-of-419 (61.1 percent) for 3,211 yards (7.66 YPA), 16:17 TD-to-INT ratio. I'm very concerned about this passing offense. ... Until defenses decide to begin eliminating him with bracket coverage, Antonio Gates should be the one constant in Rivers' 2012 pass-catching corps. Gates has a touchdown in three of his past four meetings with the Raiders. In Week 17 last year, Gates ripped Oakland for 106 yards and a score on five catches. I expect a big game on Monday night.
Robert Meachem showed little chemistry with Rivers in camp and preseason games, finishing August with one catch for seven yards. While Oakland won't field an intimidating pass defense this year, I want to see Meachem put something acceptable in a box score before starting him. ... Malcom Floyd is the stronger bet Monday night if you're dying to start a Chargers wideout. Floyd should spend most of this game in burnable RCB Shawntae Spencer's coverage, and has no "rapport" concerns with his quarterback. ... Ronnie Brown is expected to be San Diego's lead back until Ryan Mathews returns from his fractured collarbone, which figures to happen in Week 2 or 3. San Diego played its starters in the preseason finale, so I went back and watched that game to take notes for this column. The Chargers' first-team offense played 15 snaps, and Brown was in on 14 of them. Jackie Battle -- not Curtis Brinkley -- looked like the No. 2. Brown showed very little as a rusher and receiver, but he should be on the field quite a bit against Oakland and is a legit threat for 20 touches. He's worth flex consideration. ... Eddie Royal annually garners offseason buzz from media types, but he hasn't been a fantasy asset in four seasons. Now the No. 4 option at best in a sputtering passing offense, it's hard to imagine Royal recapturing rookie-year form.
One aspect of Oakland's new offense that Darren McFadden owners will quickly come to enjoy is playcaller Greg Knapp's passion for running the football relentlessly. Among this generation's run-heaviest minds, Knapp's offenses have finished in the league's top five in rushing attempts seven times in his nine years as a coordinator. Knapp worked on Houston's staff last season, and they tied for the NFL lead in carries. San Diego's front seven has improved, but it may not matter when perhaps the league's most gifted runner south of Minnesota is handling the rock 30 times a game. McFadden is the best fantasy bet in both Monday night matchups. ... Aside from Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland's pass game is best left avoided in Week 1. Carson Palmer struggled all preseason in Knapp's new offense. Rod Streater's outlook is dependent on Denarius Moore's (hamstring) availability, and Moore is tentatively expected to play after a solid week of practice. Jacoby Ford (foot) has been ruled out. Heyward-Bey is the only intriguing receiver gamble. He racked up 130 yards and a touchdown on nine catches against a similar-looking Chargers secondary in Week 17 last year. ... I'm a big fan of Moore as a WR3 candidate with upside in standard scoring settings, but I'd put him on a "prove-it" week after he had so many setbacks with the hamstring. Moore has barely practiced in the new offense. If he has a big night, great. We'll know to start him next week.
Score Prediction: Raiders 23, Chargers 20