With the draft behind us, the countdown is on. The NFL season is four months from starting, but you can bet that everyone in the United States is already waiting in anticipation.
For the city of Cincinnati, this wait will be excruciating. The Bengals are coming off two consecutive playoff seasons, but both of them were cut disappointingly short against the Houston Texans. What is the next chapter for this young cast?
The schedule is tough for the Bengals in 2013, so which games will be the most pivotal? Read on to find out.
Quite a few people think the Pittsburgh Steelers are going through a rough patch due to their subpar 2012 season. What people forget is that they were marred by injuries, and plus, this is Pittsburgh—down seasons just don't happen that much.
The Steelers had a stellar NFL draft that reloaded their team, so they will be even tougher this year. Andy Dalton struggled in both games against the Steelers in 2012, and with the addition of Jarvis Jones to Pittsburgh, his time could be getting worse.
In any case, this will be the second game of the season, presenting an opportunity for both teams to set the tone in the AFC North. In what could be a competitive division, a win for either team here will be huge.
It will be interesting to see what the young Cincinnati secondary can do against newcomer Markus Wheaton and the receiving corps and how James Harrison performs against his old team.
With both the Steelers and Bengals expected to be competitive, it's no wonder this game will be a Monday night showdown.
After the New York Giants shot down the Packers' incredible 2011 season, I jumped off the green-and-yellow bandwagon. Not that I thought they were bad, but I didn't consider them to be a Super Bowl contender last season because of missing pieces. That has changed now, and I think they're going to be the NFC's representative next February.
What does that mean for Cincinnati? Beating a legitimate contender—something Cincinnati hasn't done in its recent two-year run—will finally get the Bengals some much-needed respect. But it won't be easy.
Cincinnati's secondary is young, and Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback in football. Plus, the Packers added two rookie running backs in the draft, finally adding that piece to their offense.
However, the Bengals also boosted their offense, picking up Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Green Bay's defense is improved but still not great. Cincinnati's offense may have to go toe-to-toe with the Green Bay offense.
Green Bay would be quite the victory, but beating Tom Brady and the mighty New England Patriots would put Cincinnati on the map. A lot of its criticism is still due to its inability to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore but New England? Who's giving the Bengals a shot to beat the Patriots?
Tom Brady may be on the back nine of his career, but he's just as strong as ever. The Pats are still a little weak on the receiver side of things with the departure of Wes Welker, but when has that mattered?
Cincinnati had to win seven out of eight games down the stretch last season to sneak into the postseason, and its record against the AFC was abysmal prior to that stretch. With eight or nine teams able to make the playoffs in 2013, Mike Zimmer's defense must shut down Tom Brady.
The Bengals need AFC wins. They need a defining victory. They need to make themselves the AFC powerhouses that they are so capable of being.
Why should the Bengals care about this game? What makes it so impactful? Well, this game will feature two teams that are on the same track—young teams on the rise.
Cincinnati drafted Andy Dalton in 2011 and stunned the NFL world by reaching the postseason.
Indianapolis drafted Andrew Luck in 2012 and did the same.
The Colts got some big defensive help in the draft by obtaining Bjoern Werner, thus improving what was an awful pass rush last season. He could make it a nightmare day for Dalton.
On the flip side, Indy got no real help in its mediocre secondary. That means A.J. Green could be found wide open all day.
This could be the ultimate battle to find out which team is the future of the AFC.
Yet again, the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals will finish the regular season at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati was the last team to beat the Ravens last season, but it was facing mostly-second string guys (i.e., Tyrod Taylor).
Like with the Steelers and Patriots, this would be a defining victory. However, this game is different in that it might have major playoff impact. Will the game be for a division title? A wild-card spot? A divisional tiebreaker?
With it being the Week 17 game, the two teams will be bringing their A game. Cincinnati is in need of a division title to gain respect, and the Ravens will be looking to defend their championship.