Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals took advantage of an easy schedule and some unbelievably good luck to earn their second playoff berth in the past three seasons.
Not only did the Bengals get to face teams that were on their level such as Arizona, Buffalo, Seattle and Jacksonville, Cincy also got to play a wounded Indianapolis team that was spiraling out of control and Denver pre-Tebowmania.
The schedule isn’t as kind this year, but that hasn’t stopped many fans from believing that this year’s team has a chance to be one of the best in the franchise’s history.
In order to return to the playoffs—and win that first playoff game in over 20 years—the Bengals will need to traverse a minefield that is the 2012 schedule. There are very few off weeks, but these eight games will make the difference between a second straight playoff berth and a disappointing January at home.
Week 1 at Baltimore (Sept. 10)
Thanks to the NFL’s new scheduling, division teams will open against division opponents, and this year, Cincinnati gets Baltimore. Not only that, but the game is on the road and on Monday night.
Considering how far apart the two franchises have been, it’s somewhat surprising how close the series has been recently. The Bengals are actually 8-6 against Baltimore dating back to the 2005 season, and that includes getting swept in two games last year. But the Bengals are just 3-4 in Baltimore over that span.
Road division wins are the hardest to come by in the NFL, and the Bengals get a tough one right off the bat. While getting a win may be asking too much, a victory would certainly get the season started off right.
Week 7 vs. Pittsburgh (Oct. 21)
After the opener against Baltimore, Cincinnati gets a relative break over the next few weeks. But starting with Pittsburgh in Week 7, the Bengals have five killer games in a seven-week stretch.
It all starts with the Steelers—a team that has long made a history of ruining Bengal seasons. Cincy has lost four straight in the series and is just 4-11 against the Steelers over the past seven years. The Bengals have actually had more success in Pittsburgh than at home during that span, going 3-4.
While the Bengals have beaten Pittsburgh only once at home since 2005, this will be a game they will circle on their schedule. A win here and Cincy could realistically be 6-1 heading into its toughest stretch of the season.
Week 9 vs. Denver (Nov. 4)
The team that Denver brings to Cincinnati in the first week of November will have a decidedly different look. And by the time that the Bengals play Denver, we’ll know if Peyton Manning is truly 100 percent back or if he's just a shell of the All-Pro quarterback who led the Colts to two Super Bowls.
Either way, the fact that the Bengals will get to play the Broncos at home should be an advantage. Regardless of the quarterback, Denver is nearly unbeatable at home. The Broncos beat Cincy 24-22 at Mile High last season.
Week 10 vs. N.Y. Giants (Nov. 11)
The Giants and Bengals both finished with identical 9-7 records last season, but that’s where the similarities end. While the Bengals’ season skidded to a halt in a wild-card loss to Houston, New York caught fire and went the distance and won its second Super Bowl in five years.
The Super Bowl champs come to Cincinnati in the middle of November, and although the Giants weren’t regular-season monsters a year ago, they still must be respected. The game will mark the second straight in which the Bengals face a Manning at quarterback, and you’d better believe that Peyton will give Eli a full scouting report.
Week 12 vs. Oakland (Nov. 25)
The lead-up to this game will be almost intolerable. Carson Palmer returns to his old city for the first time since being traded. You better believe that the media will milk this one to death.
But all of the hoopla will mask the fact that the game should be a battle. Despite their recent upheavals, the Raiders appear to be a team on the rise, and Palmer will certainly know the defense he's facing.
Sandwiched in between two NFC West road games, this could be one of those games that you look back on at the end of the season as a reason why the Bengals either did—or didn’t—make the playoffs.
Week 13 at San Diego (Dec. 2)
The Bengals have serious problems winning in the Pacific time zone (6-15 since 1990) and an even worse time winning in San Diego (1-6 over that same span). Of course, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are unbeaten on the West Coast with a win at Seattle last year.
Cincinnati hasn’t beaten the Chargers in San Diego since a 21-16 win on Sept. 16, 1990—the last year the Bengals won a playoff game. Interestingly, the Bengals played five games on the West Coast that season, beating San Diego and the Los Angeles Rams while losing to Seattle and the Los Angeles Raiders twice—the last time in the playoffs.
Should the Bengals beat San Diego this year, it could the sign of a truly special season.
Week 16 at Pittsburgh (Dec. 23)
As noted above, the Bengals struggle with Pittsburgh. But Cincinnati has actually fared much better on the Steelers’ home field, going 3-4 in seven games there since 2005 while going 1-7 at Paul Brown Stadium.
This game, coupled with the season finale against Baltimore, may possibly make or break Cincinnati’s season. It’s possible the Bengals can absorb one loss but will struggle to make the playoffs if they lose both. Last year, Cincy was swept by both Pittsburgh and Baltimore but still squeaked into the playoffs.
Week 17 vs. Baltimore (Dec. 30)
It’s not inconceivable that the regular-season finale could prove to be the AFC North Division championship game. That’s almost how it turned out last year when the Ravens beat Cincinnati 24-16 to edge Pittsburgh on a tiebreaker.
Of course, this year, it could be the Bengals playing for the division title, and if that’s the case, they drew a lucky break in getting the game at home. Cincinnati owns a distinct 5-2 advantage against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium since 2005 and have won two out of the last three games.
But in any playoff-clinching situation, the Ravens are arguably one of the best teams in the league. As a result, this last game should prove to be the Bengals’ toughest game of the season.