Every year when the NFL Schedule comes out for teams to see, you get out that red pen. You find the prime time games, circle your divisional matchups, and that other "game" that sticks out as maybe being that game that puts you playing in January as opposed to enjoying another long offseason.
Their home opener comes a week later, as they host Tennessee, a team that has playoff expectations for this year. They finish September in the Meadowlands against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants in week 3, and host Cleveland in week 4.
If the Bengals are to make the postseason for only the second time under Marvin Lewis, October holds the key. They start off the month with a trip to Dallas to play a team that went 14-2 last year, but was bounced out of the playoffs in the first round. This is one of only two nationally televised games the Bengals will have this year.
The New York Jets, a team the Bengals beat last year, will host the Bengals in week 6.
Cincinnati will have one week after returning from New York to get ready for one of those "circle-the-calender" type games as they host Pittsburgh, a team they haven't beaten at home in the Marvin Lewis era.
A bye falls in week 8 for the Bengals, which is right around the time the Bengals can either prepare for their home stretch of a playoff push, or start scheduling tee times for their favorite golf courses for the offseason.
An above-.500 scenario is possible, with likely wins coming against a rebuilding Ravens team, an ugly situation in New York, a Cleveland team possibly amidst a quarterback controversy, and a Titans team that still has not been able to surround Vince Young with reliable talent on offense.
You have to assume week 7 against Pittsburgh will go a long way in saying which way the Bengals will be headed after the bye, a win likely catapulting them to the top of the division, and sitting amongst the adults at the playoff dinner table. A loss to the Steelers here would not necessarily be devastating, as they have had much better success at Heinz Field than in their own backyard.
Cincinnati also finishes with two of three at home, which could also provide another small edge in an attempt to regain the AFC North crown last held in the '05 season, also the last year the Bengals notched double-digit victories in an 11-5 campaign.
It's safe to say the off-field distractions as well as back-to-back 8 win seasons have done little to help the Bengals in their bid for more national exposure, but with the flex schedule coming in week eleven, assuming the Bengals are in the hunt, some of those Sunday afternoon kickoffs could take place under lights.
While most athletes love the attention of prime time games, the Cincinnati Bengals may be better served playing games under the radar. John Thornton, a defensive fixture for the Bengals, seemed to share a similar sentiment. "We've got a lot of things going on, so the fewer the cameras the better. We'll go under the radar."
A lack of prime time games also provides some motivation for others, including T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
"They think we stink. They don't give us any chance, so we'll just go kick everybody's (...)," Houshmandzadeh said. "If you want national exposure, make the playoffs. Like the great Cleveland Browns. I guess they're going to go 6-0 in the division and everybody else is playing for second place."
The Browns, who didn't make the playoffs, are slated for a total of 5 prime time games this year.
Prime time or the old fashioned 1:05 kickoff all count the same, though. The Bengals better be focused on the game itself week after week, as the window for this championship caliber team is dwindling. The Bengals are among a handful of teams in the AFC that are battling for position behind perennial powerhouses in New England and Indianapolis.
Look for the Bengals to pull off another double-digit win total, and reach the playoffs for the first time since '05. There is far too much talent on this team for it not to happen, not to mention they seem to be sitting well in the draft, holding 4 picks in the first 100.
A defensive playmaker like Sedrick Ellis, and a guy that can spread the field in James Hardy, both realistic targets for the Bengals in the first two rounds, could go a long way in providing the missing link for a team that seems to be starstruck.
When all is said and done, a schedule is just that; it's still far too early to evaluate or predict an outcome for a game that won't be played for another 5 months. Most elite teams are an injury away from a lost season.
Come 2009 though, look for the Bengals to be sitting in the top six playoff positions in the AFC.