CINCINNATI BENGAL (14-5)
EXPECTATIONS: Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow strained a calf muscle early in camp and returned to practice Aug. 30. With Burrow in charge, Cincinnati showed they were a contender in the AFC. With the addition of Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the fourth-year quarterback will work behind the best offensive line he’s ever had with the Bengals. Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd stand out as one of the best receiving groups in the NFL. Tight end Irv Smith was added to succeed Hayden Hurst as wide receiver. The defense is anchored by excellent linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt and Edge Rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Kicker Evan McPherson is one of the most accurate kickers in the league. The Bengals think they need to team up to get back to the Super Bowl, two seasons after improbably reaching Game 1 only to lose to the Los Angeles Rams 23-20. Burrow is also in talks on a long-term contract that will make him one of the highest paid players in the NFL.
NEW FACES: LT Orlando Brown Jr., TE Irv Smith, S Nick Scott, S Jordan Battle, WR Charlie Jones, DE Myles Murphy, CB DJ Turner.
KEY LOSSES: S Jessie Bates III, S Vonn Bell, CB Eli Apple, TE Hayden Hurst, CB Tre Flowers, RB Samaje Perine.
STRENGTHS: The passing game. One of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Burrow is a serious shopper with a knack for finding ways to make positive plays out of thin air. Chase, the 2021 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, catches almost anything thrown nearby. Burrow is good at taking what the defense gives, incorporating tight end and running back Joe Mixon as key parts of the passing game.
WEAKNESSES: With the strong safety tandem Bates and Bell departing to free agency, there is some uncertainty about the secondary. Dax Hill, a 2022 first-round pick; Scott, the former Los Angeles Ram; and Battle, a rookie third-round pick, should hold fullback. But Cincinnati’s top cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, is healthy again. Veteran Mike Hilton and 2022 second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt also return.
SIDE DEVELOPMENT: Some high school defensive starters went into Game 2 with mixed results. Mixon missed camp time while on trial for pointing a gun at a woman during a road rage incident in January. He was acquitted after four days of trial. Jake Browning won the contest to become backup QB. Receiver Andrei Iosivas, a sixth-round pick from Princeton, stood out in the preseason games.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Chase. The third-year forward is comfortable in the league, which led Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan to line him up all over the field to unbalance defenses. Chase is Burrow’s favorite point guard and a consistent player, with 1,000-yard receiving campaigns in each of his first two seasons.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win the Super Bowl: 10-1. Over/under wins: 11 1/2.
AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL