Well, here it is folks. The 4th part in the 4 part series that takes a pre-preseason look at the Cincinnati Bengals 2009 season schedule. This part is going to look at the final four games of the season in which the Bengals could clinch a playoff berth or they could break our hearts again leaving us pondering what could have been, which we are all accustomed to. But with the schedule being favorable, the possibility of the Bengals being in contention could be a reality. A winning record of 7-5 or better is a distinct possibility which could put them in line for at least wildcard spot. If that is the case, the outcome of each of these games will become more important with each passing week.
The first opponent in the final 4 games is a road game to Minnesota against the Vikings, who are a vastly improved team from just a few seasons ago. The Vikings possess one of the premier running backs in Adrian Peterson, who runs in the open field with reckless abandon. He finished the season with 1760 yards rushing averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The Bengals ability to stop him will be key in this game. But the Vikings added a new wrinkle that could pose problems with drafting WR Percy Harvin in the first round. There is much talk that he will be lined up in the QB position in the Wildcat formation. At the combine, Harvin posted one of the fastest 40 times with a 4.37 time, which could provide him with breakaway speed that defenses will find hard to catch. One of the problems that do face the Vikings is finding a starting quarterback. Tavaris Jackson has been streaky at best, getting benched in favor of Gus Frerote, who guided them to an 8-3 record last season before getting injured. And no, he did not head butt the stadium. In the off- season, they traded for Sage Rosenfels from the Texans, then released Frerote to make room. But the pursuit for a starting QB didn't stop there. They made a major push to get two time retiree Brett Farve, who, as of this writing, is still retired. Despite Petersons' rushing performance, the Viking offense finished 17th averaging 330.9 yards per game. What kept the Vikings in the game was their defense that finished 6th overall at 292.4 yards per game. This seasons' meeting will break the series record of 5-5 including the 2005 Bengals 37-8 victory when the defense picked off 5 passes.
The next game is also on the road with their second trip to the left coast, but this time it is against the San Diego Chargers, which features triple threat QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates and RB LaDaninain Tomlinson. Head Coach Norv Turner, who inherited a 14-2 team from the 2007 season and Super Bowl expectations, is in his second year as the Chargers head coach. He has built a reputation for being an innovative offensive coordinator, but never as a viable head coach. In 8 years as a head coach, he has won only two division titles, including last season's fluke title at 8-8. The Chargers at one point in the season possessed a 4-8 record before winning the final 4 games and watching the Denver Broncos hand them the division title after having a record of 8-5. Their ability to put points on the board averaging 27.4 points per game allowed them to overcome a defense that finished 25th overall and give up 21.7 points per game. Despite the lackluster season, their offseason was rather quiet with the resigning of LT to a 3 year deal and backup Darren Sproles to a one year franchise tag deal. To shore up the defense, the Chargers took DE Larry English with their first pick, who is expected to provide Shawne Merriman with relief if there is a setback during rehab. If he can break the starting line-up, this could provide the Chargers with 3 capable rushers including Shaun Phillips. The Chargers lead the regular season series with an 18-10 record including the Bengals last visit to San Diego in 2003 when they came away with a 34-27 victory. Most of our older fans, myself included, remember the most significant Bengals victory in franchise history coming in the 1981 AFC Championship game against the Dan Fouts -lead Chargers, which catapulted the Bengals to their very first Super Bowl appearance. The game was played in conditions that are only felt in the Antarctic. Temperatures' so cold, it froze the thermostats. My teeth are chattering just thinking about it.
The Bengals continue their meeting with AFC West teams with another game against the Kansas City Chefs, I mean, Chiefs. Great googly moogly! This will be the 5th consecutive meeting between the two teams with the previous 4 games being split at 2-2 including the 16-6 win last season, with this meeting to be held at Paul Brown Stadium. Unlike the Chargers uneventful off season, the Chiefs were busy working to improve a team that finished 24th in total offense at 308.7 yards per game, and 31st in total defense allowing 393.2 yards per game. Their first step towards improvement was firing Herm Edwards and hiring Todd Haley, the offensive coordinator for the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. (Man that sounded weird) Then they were able to extract Mike Vrabel and Matt Cassel from the New England Patriots, which left wife and me (yes, she loves football) scratching our head as to why New England would let go of two key players. Both players are expected to make immediate impact on both sides of the ball. Looking to improve their anemic defense for the long term, they drafted DE Tyson Jackson, former LSU teammate of Glenn Dorsey (whom they drafted last season), with the 3rd pick overall in this season draft. Wwhile in college their motto was "nobody runs on us". It will be interesting to see how well that translates to the NFL.
The final game of the season is at the Meadowlands against the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets!!! They, too, have gone through a rather interesting off-season after going 9-7 and again missing the playoffs, despite having future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre playing quarterback. Since missing the playoffs again, they felt it necessary to fire Eric Mangini and hire Rex Ryan from the Ravens, and Favre decided once again to retire. With the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals landed WR Laveranues Coles to fill his spot, who I believe will be a great compliment to Chad Johnson (ok, Ochocinco). Last season's offensive output, despite finishing 16th overall averaging 331.7 yards per game, were able to put up 25.3 points per game, 9th in the league. The defense also finished 16th overall allowing 329.4 yards per game, but was unable to keep the opposition off the board allowing 22.2 points per game, 18th in the league. To fill the void that Favre left when he retired again, the Jets drafted highly touted Mark Sanchez with the 5th pick overall, which they got in a trade with the Cleveland Browns. This pick was only one of a total of three draft picks the Jets had for this season. They were able to show some semblance of stability by resigning several of their declared free agents including Bubba Franks, Jay Feely and Larry Izzo. They were also able to make a trade with the Eagles getting Lito Shepard in a deal for conditional draft picks. The Jets have the edge in the series at 12-7 including a 26-14 victory last season in New York. This game with be the third straight season they have met and the second time at the Meadowlands.
These final four games could be the toughest as 3 of the 4 games are on the road. If the Bengals have a winning record and shot a playoff spot coming into this portion of the season, these games could be the most important of the season. How the Bengals fair against the Vikings and Chargers could spell how the final two games should go.