Reality Check: The Bengals Face One of the NFL's Toughest Schedules This Season

Cincinnati is hoping to make a push, but it won't be an easy road.

Alright Bengals fans, training camp is here and there's plenty of optimism in the air, but that doesn't mean we can't be honest about what this team is facing in 2021. 

Their schedule is brutal. Let's take a look at some of their toughest games and why they could be so challenging.

Week 3: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh

Week 3 starts the brutality with an annual road trip that doesn't have a reputation for bringing joy to the Bengals. They’ll face Pittsburgh early in the year at one of the Steelers' healthiest points in the season. This game is also on the road a Heinz field, a stadium that has not even come close to being a welcoming atmosphere to your favorite players in orange and black.

Cincinnati’s last win at 100 Art Rooney Ave came almost six years ago on Nov. 1, 2015. Now that head coach Zac Taylor has successfully flipped the roster, can this team play well enough to leave Pittsburgh with a win? Having Joe Burrow slinging rockets from the pocket is encouraging, but we’ll find out for sure on Sept. 26.

The Bengals will also have just three days to recover and prepare for their first and only prime-time game of the season—a Thursday night date with Jacksonville. Thursday Night Football doesn’t usually bring the highest quality game of the week, but the betting odds typically favor home teams on Thursday nights which is good for the Bengals.

Week 15: Cincinnati at Denver

Coaches and players will tell you that every week is difficult. The preparation and game plan each week must be executed at a high clip to notch a win against anyone. Though most will never admit this publicly, some opponents pose a much bigger threat, which is why the final stretch for Cincinnati will be one of the toughest of the season.

Week 15 on the road in Denver sticks out as a particularly tall task for the Bengals. Before you scoff at the Broncos after last season’s 5-11  finish, I’ll tell you this—much like the Bengals, Vic Fangio and company have a lot to prove in 2021.

Fangio heads into year three with a 12-20 record as head coach of the Broncos. Vegas put 5-to-1 odds on Fangio being the first head coach to get fired this season.

The defense was a weak spot for Denver in 2020, but that side of the ball is expected to play at an elevated level this year mainly because they have an insane amount of talent in the secondary after signing Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and drafting Patrick Surtain II to help fill the undeniable void left last year. With health returning to their defensive line, they should pose an ample amount of problems for any offense they face, including Burrow and his talented receiving corps.

Week 16: Baltimore at Cincinnati

In the final weeks of the season the Bengals have three dates with teams who are expected to be in postseason contention. We’ll start with a Week 16 home game against the Baltimore Ravens—a team Taylor is still trying to beat for the first time.

Cincinnati’s final game of the 2020 season ended in a 38-3 thrashing by Baltimore. The Ravens not only clinched a playoff spot, but they ran for a record 404 rushing yards in the process. It was a game that many Bengals fans would like to forget. 

Now, let’s get back 2021 because the Ravens plan to continue their habit of finishing at the top of the AFC North and their defensive unit looks poised to help them do just that.

This season, the Ravens roster is loaded returning all but one defensive starter, with linebacker Matt Judon going to the New England Patriots. Baltimore's defense allowed the fewest yards (307.8) and fewest points allowed (18.2) last season.

Lou Anarumo’s defense hasn’t been able to contain Lamar Jackson in four tries. The 2019 MVP has thrown for eight touchdowns and rushed for two more scores, while being sacked just twice in two years against Cincinnati. The Bengals are well aware that they need to step up their game plan when facing an elusive quarterback like Jackson twice a year, which is why they added players like Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Larry Ogunjobi, Eli Apple, and Ricardo Allen in free agency. 

They also drafted Joseph Ossai (69th overall), Cameron Sample (111th overall) and Tyler Shelvin (122nd overall)in the 2021 NFL Draft. The team will also happily welcome Trae Waynes and DJ Reader back to the field after 2020 injuries hampered both of their seasons.

Week 17: Kansas City at Cincinnati

Kansas City is consistently playing deep into the postseason. They've made two-straight Super Bowl appearances. Head coach Andy Reid wasted no time improving his roster from last season. We should expect to see a different offensive line this year than the one we saw get brutalized by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February.

Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach set the tone for 2021 with his aggressive moves in free agency and the draft to make sure that Patrick Mahomes will be protected. They added Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and left guard Joe Thuney. They also drafted Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith out of Tennessee. Cincinnati’s defense will be tasked with stopping some of the most elite offensive talents in the league with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in place to compliment Mahomes.

As usual, Kansas City is one of the biggest locks to make the postseason and it will be yet another week where the Bengals will be expected to be perfect in all three phases of the game to have a fighting chance.

Week 18: Cincinnati at Cleveland

The dog pound no longer needs to wear brown paper bags on their heads at games. Their team is now good enough to seriously compete with the rest of the NFL. The Browns are hoping to be even nastier this season after winning 11 games and beating the Steelers in the playoffs in 2020.

Baker Mayfield has plenty of weapons around him. He has one of the best 1-2 punches in the NFL with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at running back.

Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are anchors for the receiving crew. With those pieces already in place, they were able to add to their defense this offseason. Cincinnati’s offensive line will now have to deal with Jadaveon Clowney twice a year after Cleveland landed former No. 1 overall pick to complement star edge rusher Myles Garrett, who had 12 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2020.

Cleveland also signed former Rams defensive backs Troy Hill and John Johnson to bolster their secondary. Their defense is built to torture opposing quarterbacks so Cincinnati’s offensive line has an insane amount of pressure on it to perform well and protect Burrow if the team hopes to compete in one of the NFL's toughest divisions.

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