CINCINNATI BENGALS (14-5)
EXPECTATIONS: Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow strained a calf muscle early in camp, and returned to practice on Aug. 30. With Burrow running the show, Cincinnati has shown it’s 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 had yet with the Bengals. Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd stand out as one of the best receiver groups in the NFL. Tight end Irv Smith was added to take over for Hayden Hurst as a pass-catcher. The defense is anchored by fine linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt and edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Kicker Evan McPherson is among the league’s most accurate kickers. The Bengals believe they have to team to get back to the Super Bowl, two seasons after improbably reaching the premier game 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 NFL’s highest-paid players.
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 gritty customer who has a knack of finding ways of making positive plays out of nothing. Chase, the 2021 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, catches almost everything thrown in his vicinity. Burrow is gifted at taking what the defense gives, incorporating his tight end and running back Joe Mixon as key pieces of the passing game.
WEAKNESSES: With the departure of the stalwart safety tandem of Bates and Bell to free agency, there is some uncertainty about the secondary. Dax Hill, a first-round draft pick in 2022; Scott, the former Los Angeles Ram; and Battle, a rookie third-round pick, will be expected to hold down the back end. But Cincinnati’s best cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, is healthy again. Veteran Mike Hilton and Cam Taylor-Britt, a second-round pick in 2022, also return.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Some defensive starters in the secondary played in the second preseason game with uneven results. Mixon has missed some time in camp while standing trial on a charge of pointing a gun at a woman in a road-rage incident in January. He was acquitted after a four-day trial. Jake Browning won the competition to be the backup QB. Receiver Andrei Iosivas, a sixth-round draft pick from Princeton, has stood out in preseason games.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Chase. The third-year wideout is comfortable in the league, leading Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan to line him all over the field to keep defenses off balance. Chase is Burrow’s favorite playmaker and a consistent performer, with 1,000-yard receiving campaigns in each of his first two seasons.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 10-1. Over/under wins: 11 1/2.
AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL