If the Cincinnati Bengals are going to have their first consecutive playoff appearances since 1981-1982, getting off to a fast start will be of prime importance. The NFL schedule makers have things set up for the Bengals to sprint out of the gate, but have a gauntlet of playoff teams waiting late in the season.
It won't be an easy start, beginning on the road in Baltimore in prime time. After that though, the Bengals have a chance to lay claim to the AFC North heading into their mid-season bye week.
Weeks two through six all provide opponents that failed to make the playoffs in 2011 with two games against the Cleveland Browns, home games against Jacksonville and Miami and a visit to Washington. Moreover, it's quite possible that Colt McCoy would be the most experienced quarterback the Bengals would see during that five week stretch. A 5-0 run there would most likely have the Bengals on top of the AFC North when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town in week seven.
Those next three games will be the key to the Bengals' season. Cincinnati has three straight home dates against Pittsburgh, Denver and defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants with a bye week in between Pittsburgh and Denver. All three games are at home, but all three feature matchups with the elite of the NFL. Anything less than a 2-1 record in those three games will put the Bengals behind the eight-ball heading into the final month of the season.
The next stretch of games features three straight AFC West opponents. The Bengals will travel to Kansas City and San Diego with a home date against Carson Palmer and the Raiders in between. Though fans will no doubt be hyped about the matchup with Palmer, the team must avoid over-emphasizing that game. Any looking forward or backward during that stretch could be costly. If the Bengals can beat the Raiders at home and split the road games, that would leave them conceivably at 9-3 heading into the final four weeks.
It's a brutal finish for Cincinnati, but one that will either confirm or negate their playoff readiness. After facing the Dallas Cowboys at home, the Bengals hit the road for a prime time showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles, who will no doubt be better than last year's disappointing finish. Then it's a road game at Pittsburgh followed by a home finale against Baltimore. A split in those four games would leave the Bengals at 11-5 and at worst, a Wild Card team.
If the Bengals are going to return to the playoffs, they won't be sneaking up on anyone this season. What's more, they're going to have to win some games against playoff caliber teams to get there.
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