Week 1 means we can finally stop having to put "Preseason" in the titles of these things- but the real important part is that it signals the actual start of real live football and no longer the football-like-substance that is the preseason. No more months of debating endless theories about how the season could play out, it's time for teams to put up or shut up on the road to that most hallowed of football ground, the Super Bowl.
Every journey begins with a single step, and for the Bears, that step is the Cincinnati Bengals.
Last Year: Finished 10-6, which tied them for the AFC North division lead and earned them a wild card berth behind the Baltimore Ravens. They fell to the Texans in the Wild Card round, 19-13.
This Year: You really don't want to hear the word "preseason" anymore, so ignoring that the Bengals went 3-1 in the preseason, we'll just toss up the standard "The Bengals are currently .500 in the regular season, as their wins equal their losses." Or, they're 0-0, you tell me which is more impressive. Also because I can't divide by zero. Though it'd be cool.
When Last We Met: Bear fans, avert your eyes. Week 7 of the 2009 season, the Bears lost to the Bengals 45-10, in a game where the Bengals didn't punt until the fourth quarter (I know, cause I was there. /Berman'd). The Bengals went to 5-2 and went on to win the AFC North with a 10-6 record. The last time the Bears beat the Bengals was the 2001 season.
Total Yardage: 5323 (22nd in 2012)
Total Points: 391 (12th)
Passing Yardage: 3578 (17th)
Rushing Yardage: 1745 (18th)
This just in guys, A.J. Green is pretty good. A Pro-Bowler in his first two years, Green's got over 2400 yards and 18 touchdowns to his name and a pretty sterling start to his career. Andy Dalton wasn't a Pro Bowler last year, but he's still not a bad quarterback, coming off a 2011 Pro Bowl and having a better statistical season in 2012. Couple that with the drafting of Tyler Eifert and adding Giovani Bernard to the backfield, with another Pro Bowl tight end in Jermaine Gresham, and they're trying to build a really dangerous offense up there.
The unit doesn't have a bad offensive line, probably better than the Bears, but tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith are both injured and may not play against the Bears.
Total Yardage: 5115 (6th in 2012)
Total Points: 320 (8th)
Passing Yardage: 3400 (7th)
Rushing Yardage: 1715 (12th)
So. Geno Atkins is, likewise, pretty good. Good enough that this week he earned a really nice five-year payday, the kind of which Henry Melton probably goes to sleep at night dreaming about (5 years, 55 million). That made him the second highest-paid defensive tackle in the league, and he's worth it, because he's the top defensive tackle in the league. Last year the All-Pro notched 12.5 sacks and, at the age of 24, he's got quite a few years ahead of him to get more.
But the defense isn't a one-trick pony. Defensive End Michael Johnson was right there with Atkins with 11.5 sacks and Carlos Dunlap added another six. The unit had 50 sacks last year in total.
They're also pretty good in the back seven, with Vontaze Burfict having a strong rookie campaign last year and adding James Harrison, who can still play.
If the Bears do this...
The Bears will have a slight advantage when their defensive line lines up against the Bengals, with the Bengals tackles handling injuries, so Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton, and Shea McClellin will need to make the most of their opportunities and put Andy Dalton on his back.
Offensively, this might well be the "Run to set up the pass" game; the Bengals' pass rush is a good one and hitting them early with the running game might well set them on their heels.
If the Bengals do this...
Welcome to the NFL, Kyle Long, you get to meet Geno Atkins! Long had a solid preseason for a first-round rookie, but facing Atkins will be a real test, and one that Long will have to win. Likewise, Jermon Bushrod will need to stabilize the left side against Michael Johnson. If the Bears keep Jay Cutler upright and limit the Bengals to two or three sacks (I know, tall order), the Bears will have a strong chance to win the game.
Defensively, with the tight end combination of Eifert and Gresham, the middle of the Bears defense will be tested. Whoever's playing there, whether you believe the depth chart and it's D.J. Williams or Jonathan Bostic gets some playing time, they'll have to be aware of what's happening at all times. And Charles Tillman's done a solid job of closing down Calvin Johnson, but he'll have to do it to Green too - can Tillman do it, facing him for the first time in his career?
It's finally football season, folks. Sunday afternoon, we see if this team can get off on the right foot.