The past 2 pre-preseason previews, we looked at the first 8 games of the season. We have taken a look at not only the opponent, but the changes they have endured, whether it is something as small as a player release or a new head coach and quarterback. Now we will take a look at the next four games on the schedule, which like the first and second parts, has two divisional rivals on it. This part of the schedule could be pivotal to the Bengals playoff chances as they close out the divisional season in week 12 against the Cleveland Browns at home. As long as the Bengals are within range of playoff spot, the last two divisional games could propel them to that spot. With that in mind, let's look at the next four games of the season.
Week 10 could be a very important game in the divisional race as they travel to Pittsburgh to face their dominate defense. This will be the second game in a row that the Bengals will face last season's top two defenses. The Steelers defense essentially stayed the same with the signing of James Harrison to a six year deal, but just released Larry Foote who had 64 tackles but only 1.5 sacks last season. Now, not all hope is lost with the Bengals heading to Pittsburgh. I think some Steelers fans may not remember the following facts as sometimes I think they have very short memories; but there have been times when the Bengals have gone into the Ketchup Bottle and gotten the victory. As recently as 2006, the Bengals invaded Heinz Field in week three of that season and came out with a 28-20 victory. But the last time the Bengals went to Pittsburgh for the second game of the season and won was 2005 in week 13, a 38-30 shootout victory, sealing the Bengals playoff bid. As much as the Steelers fans don't want to admit it, this game could have a big impact on the divisional playoff race.
Week 11 sees the Bengals having to travel to the left coast to play the Oakland Raiders, who have not been able to "raid" anything in several seasons. The only thing stable about this team is the owner Al Davis and his inability to realize what it takes to run a winning football team. Now I know Mike Brown is not much better, but at least stability is something you can count on from Brown. Since the their last appearance in the Super Bowl, Al Davis has sought to destroy a proud franchise and its rabid following down to an embarrassment that can only be surpassed by the Detroit Lions. This is Tom Cable's first season as the formal Head Coach of the Raiders. He took over last season after Davis felt that Lane Kiffin was being insubordinate by coaching a team that featured a me-only first mentality. The Raiders did finish with a 5-11 record, slightly better record than Bengals. But don't let that fool you as they finished 29th in total offense averaging 272.2 yards per game. The defense wasn't much better as they finished 27th allowing 360.9 yards per game. Knowing that both the offense and defense need help, the Raiders picked WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and SS Mike Mitchell with their top two picks in this year's draft. Notable members from last season's team that will not be back are WR's Ronald Curry and Ashley Lelie, but the Raiders signed DT Ryan Boschetti from the Redskins and human battering-ram FB Lorenzo Neal in hopes of shoring up their respective units. On paper, this looks like a sure win. The only thing that will tell if this is true is how each team is playing when this game is underway.
Week 12 is the final game of against a divisional foe as the Cleveland Browns travel down I-71 into Paul Brown Stadium for another rendition of the Battle of Ohio, considered by Sporting News as the best rivalry in the Great State of Ohio. And one can draw that conclusion just by looking at the overall record coming into this season at 36-35 in favor of the Bengals. Last season they split the series, with the visiting team winning, including a 14-0 Bengals shutout of the Browns in Cleveland. As of this writing, the Browns still have not mentioned who the official starting QB will be between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Coming into this game, if the Bengals want to ensure they have control of their playoff destiny, a win here is a must. If that is successful, they can carry that momentum into the remaining games of the season as they are against non-divisional opponents.
After the Browns come into town, comes another team from up north and considered now the worst franchise in NFL history after posting the first ever 0'fer 16 season. The Detroit Lions, a team that will have nothing to lose because they lost it all last season, come into Paul Brown Stadium for a week 13 visit. In the offseason the Lions overhauled their entire front office starting with Matt Millen, who felt that drafting wide receivers would make more of an impact then looking at what the team needs were and drafting accordingly. Now the new coach and executives have to sort through the mess Millen left behind. Last season's offense finished 30th overall gaining an average of 268.2 yard per game. The only 2 teams that finished with worse offenses will play the week prior to this game. Despite having a slightly better offense then the Bengals and Browns, the Lions defense was the reason they lost every game, finishing last in total defense and scoring with the defense allowing 404.4 yards per game and 32.3 points a game, respectively. I don't care how good of an offense a team may have; a defense that allows those kinds of numbers will prevent even the best offenses from winning a game. So knowing that the defense needs help, the Lions saw fit to draft QB Matthew Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew in the first two rounds of this season's draft. I guess learning from recent history is not something the Lions front office is good at accomplishing. However they did take a step to improve the defense by signing the recently released Steeler Larry Foote. The last meeting between these two teams was a 2005, 41-17 Bengals victory, giving them the overall lead in the series at 6-3. Despite the Bengals setting precedence by intercepting 5 passes per game against the NFC North teams in 2005 prior to playing the Lions, they were only able to muster 3 picks against the Lions.
This part of the schedule starts out with the second of back -to -back grueling games against two top ranked defenses in the Ravens and Steelers. The Bengals then face 3 teams whose defenses finished poorly in the league this past season. If the Bengals can pull off the dual upsets, games against the Raiders, Browns and Lions could lead to a potential emotional letdown that may derail any playoff hopes that may be riding on these games. But if the team can stay focused and not get caught looking the other way, this series of games could propel them into serious playoff contention.