While the Cincinnati Bengals believe they have the club capable of winning their first playoff game in 23 seasons, the Chicago Bears hope going north of the border to find their new coach will lead them back to the postseason.
The quest for both begins Sunday when the visiting Bengals try to keep the Bears from a fourth straight season-opening victory.
Heading into his 11th season, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis is the NFL’s second-longest tenured coach behind New England’s Bill Belichick. The Bengals have been to the playoffs two straight seasons and three of four, but are 0-4 in the postseason under Lewis.
Though the immediate goal is to become the first Cincinnati team to make three straight playoff trips, the organization won’t truly be happy until recording its first playoff victory since the 1990 season.
“One of the hardest things to overcome is expectations,” cornerback Terence Newman said. “I think it’s easy when you’re the underdog because you have to work, people are discrediting you.
“Once you get so much expectation and people pat you on the back, some people start to believe it. It’s just the worst thing possible.”
After spending more than $180 million to keep last season’s 10-6 team intact, the Bengals brought in ex-Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison to join a unit that ranked among the top seven in total defense each of the last two seasons. Cincinnati allowed 20 or fewer points in the final nine games of 2012, including a 19-13 playoff loss at Houston.
The Bengals drafted Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and versatile North Carolina speedster Giovani Bernard with hopes both will immediately contribute to an offense led by quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green.
“As far as the talent on this team, it’s unparalleled,” Newman said. “You can look at different teams and say, ‘Well they’ve got this, they’ve got this.’ We have just as good as anybody else.”
However, there’s room for improvement, especially for an offense that ranked 22nd at 332.7 yards per game.
Dalton is the first quarterback to lead the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, but he had four touchdown passes and seven turnovers in five December games last year while getting sacked 20 times. He’s thrown four interceptions and no TDs while posting a 48.6 passer rating in two playoff losses to the Texans.
“You have to win big games - which he’s won - but you have to win playoff games and then, obviously, win a Super Bowl to be looked at as an elite quarterback in the NFL,” Lewis said.
Green has caught 162 passes for 2,407 yards and 18 TDs in his first two seasons, but had only one score over the final six regular-season games of 2012.
The Bengals have lost four of five season openers, but they’ve won two straight and four of five in Chicago. Though the teams haven’t played since 2009, Cincinnati has won the last two overall meetings by a combined 69-17.
The Bears, also coming off a 10-6 season, have won three straight openers - all at home - but enters this one with a new look on the sideline.
Longtime coach Lovie Smith was fired after the team failed to reach the playoffs despite starting 7-3 in 2011 and 7-1 in 2012.
Enter Marc Trestman, who makes his NFL head coaching debut after leading Montreal of the CFL to consecutive championships during a five-year run in Canada.
“I think the best thing about him is he’s feeling it out himself and looking for changes that he can make that makes him a better coach,” tight end Martellus Bennett said. “He’s always trying to do the things he can do to become better.”
Trestman had success as an NFL offensive coordinator with Cleveland, San Francisco and Oakland, helping elevate the play of quarterbacks like Bernie Kosar, Steve Young and Rich Gannon.
He’ll try to do the same with Jay Cutler, whose 81.3 passer rating last season was 20th in the league and the second-worst of his seven-year career. He’s completed just 58.4 percent of his passes over the past two seasons, but in his defense, Cutler was sacked 61 times in 25 games during that span.
Chicago made strides to upgrade his protection by signing veteran tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson. It also drafted Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, both of whom will start on the right side.
Cutler still has his favorite target in Brandon Marshall, who set club records with 118 catches for 1,508 yards and caught a career-high 11 TDs. However, no player besides Marshall and running back Matt Forte topped 30 receptions in 2012, and the Bears want Cutler to use others in Trestman’s West Coast offense - like Bennett and second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery.
“We’re going to spread it around,” Cutler said. “We can’t just throw to Brandon and give the ball to Matt. We’ve got to figure out ways to get other guys involved.”
Devin Hester failed as a receiver, but the owner of an NFL-record 18 touchdown returns on special teams will be used solely as a returner once again.
Defensively, the Bears forced a league-leading 44 turnovers and returned eight interceptions for touchdowns in 2012. However, longtime franchise face Brian Urlacher was let go and later retired. Mel Tucker comes over from Jacksonville to coordinate a defense led by aging stars Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.