(Sports Network) - Even though the Cincinnati Bengals turned in a surprise postseason appearance last season, the team feels it still has something to prove.
They'll get a chance to gain some early validation right out of the gates, making a visit to the harsh environment of M&T Bank Stadium for a primetime matchup with the defending AFC North Baltimore Ravens that will open up the NFL's Monday night schedule for the 2012 season.
Watch the Monday Night Doubleheader on TSN starting at 7pm et/4pm pt.
Cincinnati defied the experts by putting together a 9-7 record -- a five-game improvement from a forgettable previous season -- and reaching the AFC Playoffs as a Wild Card entry in 2011, with the heady play of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and the game-changing skills of first-year wide receiver A.J. Green paving the way for the team's unexpected surge.
With those two at the forefront of a strong collection of young talent the Bengals have assembled the past few years, expectations are quite high in the Queen City for 2012. But how much Cincinnati progresses during Dalton and Green's second season may depend how the team handles the tough opponents on the upcoming schedule.
Counting their 31-10 defeat at Houston in the first round of the playoffs, the Bengals went just 1-7 against foes that finished .500 or better last year. That includes a pair of hard-fought setbacks to the Ravens, a 31-24 loss at M&T Bank Stadium and a 24-16 ousting in Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.
"For us to play really good teams like that every year, twice a year, and for this team and this offense and everybody to get to where we want to be, we've got to find ways to beat those teams," said Dalton.
Cincinnati will also be attempting to buck another negative trend, with the Bengals last reaching the playoffs in back-to-back years in 1981 and 1982.
The Ravens had an even more bitter ending to an otherwise very successful campaign, coming up just short in a stinging 23-20 loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game best remembered for Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff misfiring on a 32-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds that would have forced overtime.
Baltimore experienced another tough break during the offseason, with pass- rushing terror Terrell Suggs suffering a partial Achilles tendon tear that will sideline the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year for at least half the schedule, and the team will enter Monday's opener with some heavy hearts as well after former team owner Art Modell passed away on Thursday.
The 87-year-old Modell relocated the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and christened the franchise as the Ravens, and served as the team's patriarch until selling it to businessman Steve Bisciotti in 2004.
One of the NFL's most active and influential owners during his time with the Browns and Ravens, Modell was also instrumental in the establishment of the hugely successful "Monday Night Football" program in 1970.
"I told him that we're playing Monday night and that he was going to be there watching the game and we're going to fight for him," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh about his visit to Modell in the hospital earlier in the week. "And that we're going to play our best football for Art Modell."
Baltimore is coming off a 12-4 regular season and brings an 11-game winning streak at M&T Bank Stadium, counting last January's 20-13 triumph over Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, into Monday's tilt. The Ravens have also prevailed in eight consecutive non-postseason contests against AFC North members and are 19-1 in their last 20 overall outings at home.
Chargers at Raiders
(Sports Network) - That the Oakland Raiders will enter the 2012 season with a new head coach doesn't qualify as much of a surprise. The San Diego Chargers having the same one roaming the sidelines may have caught a few observers a bit off guard, however.
What's almost unanimously billed as a make-or-break year for Norv Turner begins Monday at the O.co Coliseum, where the embattled Chargers leader takes his team into a season-opening AFC West showdown with the rival Raiders in Dennis Allen's first game as an NFL head coach.
Turner was believed to be a goner as the 2011 campaign entered its final stages, with San Diego bringing a lackluster 4-7 record into the month of December. However, another customary strong finish by the Chargers granted the veteran coach a stay of execution after the team just missed out on a playoff berth.
San Diego closed out with four wins in its last five contests, capped by a 38-26 besting of the Raiders at the Coliseum in which the Bolts erupted for 463 total yards. The victory denied Oakland the AFC West title and left both clubs in a three-way deadlock with Denver for the division lead at 8-8, with the Broncos granted a postseason invite on the tie-breaking system.
The overall result was still considered disappointing for a San Diego squad that's now been left out of the postseason two straight years following a string of four straight AFC West crowns, placing both Turner and general manager A.J. Smith on notice if an improvement doesn't take place in 2012.
"There's definitely a sense of urgency," said Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. "One thing that we do know is we treat every day like it's our last. We don't know what the future holds. And I think that's our goal, that's our motto. I think that reality has set in that we have to make the most out of this year."
Oakland did make a change in command after stumbling down the stretch of last season, with new GM Reggie McKenzie releasing Hue Jackson of his duties after only one year in charge following a sequence of four losses over the final five weeks.
McKenzie tabbed the 39-year-old Allen, who spent last year as Denver's defensive coordinator, to be the Raiders' seventh head coach over a 10-year dry period in which the Silver and Black have failed to qualify for the playoffs each time.
One of those failed hirings was Turner, who managed just nine wins in two seasons with Oakland from 2004-05.
Allen takes over a roster that was partially gutted by McKenzie out of necessity with the Raiders entering the offseason well over the salary cap due to the frivolous spending of the late owner Al Davis. Among those cut loose were linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, running back Michael Bush, cornerback Stanford Routt and tight end Kevin Boss, all of whom were useful contributors to last year's near-playoff appearance.
Bush, now with Chicago, compiled nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage while filling for Darren McFadden, Oakland's exceptional but incredibly brittle offensive catalyst who sustained a season-ending sprained foot just seven games in.
McFadden has been healthy this preseason and displayed the form that enabled the 2008 first-round pick to pile up 1,157 rushing yards and 507 more receiving while scoring 10 touchdowns in just 13 outings in 2010. As long as he can maintain good health, Allen plans on riding the big-play back as much as need be.
"We're going to do whatever it takes to win a lot of football games, so if that means playing Darren a little or a lot, that's what we're going to do," Allen said.