2013 is shaping up to be a crucial year in Cincinnati. Expectations are high, and there is a real sense that the time is now.
Third-year quarterback Andy Dalton, knows it:
“Year 3 is big for me ... It’s big for this team. We’ve played well enough to have two playoff appearances and haven’t played well once we got there. It’s big for us to show that we’re going to get back to the playoffs and then win and make a run at it. It’s what this team expects. We’ve brought everybody back, basically, from last year’s team, and that’s the attitude we’re taking into this year.” via Bengals.com
The Bengals have every chance of making it back to the postseason this year.
The division rival Pittsburgh Steelers are in a rare transition phase, and while they're by no means a pushover, the Bengals must take advantage of Pittsburgh's weaknesses before they fix them.
In Baltimore, a Super Bowl hangover awaits. Don't forget, Joe Flacco just got paid and Ray Lewis is waving goodbye. It wouldn't be surprising to see them take things easy in 2013.
If the Bengals want to make this a season to remember, here are five games they must win.
Week 3 - Green Bay Packers
Beating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers will be no easy feat. But, a win here could be crucial. The Bengals host the Packers on Sept. 22. In December the Steelers will have to travel to Lambeau Field.
If both the Steelers and the Bengals are once again vying for the wild card spot, Cincinnati will feel much more confident if they get a win over Green Bay early on.
Week 4 - @ Cleveland Browns
Cleveland may be some way off from being genuine contenders in the AFC North, but they have the ability to play spoiler. In 2012 they defended home field to the tune of 34-24 when Cincy came to town.
Between the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens, the division will be incredibly tight. All of them will be hoping for two victories against the Browns, but it won't be easy. Cincinnati needs to make sure it gets the job done in Cleveland this year to keep things close at the top.
Week 9 - @ Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins are gearing up for a serious run at the AFC wild card in 2013.They finished a surprising 7-9 in 2012, and now Ryan Tannehill finds himself in a similar situation to Dalton in Cincinnati. New additions Mike Wallace and Dustin Keller should help him bring a higher tempo to the offense, but the departure of Jake long could be their undoing.
This will be the start of a two-game trip, first to Miami and then to Baltimore. Cincinnati needs to come away with a win in one of them, and beating Miami is the more likely of the two. It could even prove more important in the race for the wild card.
Week 15 - @ Pittsburgh Steelers
It may not have been pretty, but the Bengals came away with a victory at Heinz Field in 2012. It was the game that sealed a postseason spot for them and they need to do it all over again this year.
It looks like the game could have just as much significance this year as both teams should win one of their last two tilts. Pittsburgh will follow up with their visit to Green Bay before closing out with a home game against Cleveland. The Bengals will welcome the Vikings to Paul Brown Stadium before ending the year hosting the Ravens.
Expect a very, very flustered Marvin Lewis in this one.
Week 17 - Baltimore Ravens
The final game of the season brings a repeat of 2012's finale. It was a game that held little meaning in Week 17 last year. This time around, the Bengals will hope that the AFC North crown is on the line.
The final Sunday of the regular season is always either crucial or irrelevant. Which side of the fence you fall on depends on whether you think Dalton will take a step forward.
So that's it.
Five matchups with the potential to give Bengals fans heart palpitations.
There's no denying that expectations have heightened. Anything other than a trip to the playoffs and the season will be deemed a failure. Not only that, but if the Bengals don't go on to win a playoff game, we could see some serious changes in the Queen City.
Dalton said it best, "It’s what this team expects".