When analyzing an NFL team, be it for their draft class, free agency period or their upcoming schedule, you must use a critical phrase: "on paper". The first two have already come and gone, while the latter is approaching fast as the summer months are on the horizon.
If there is one team that has historically been difficult to give an early record prediction, it's the Cincinnati Bengals. They continually disappointed in the 1990s, were on the verge of success throughout the mid-2000s, yet have seemed to have hit a stride of sorts in recent years. From 2011-2014, the Bengals had 40 regular season wins (an average of 10 per year), being a model of regular season consistency--in the most positive wa. It's no secret that it's the postseason that has been what's plagued the team in that span.
It's far too early to predict a record, but the Bengals were handed one of the league's toughest schedules--on paper. The Steelers also have a very difficult road, perhaps more so than the Bengals, but we all know that the road to the AFC North crown comes in slugfests that have bred some of the best rivalries in the NFL.
Josh Kirkendall dissected the schedule a few weeks back after its release, breaking it down into digestible morsels for our readers and showing the road map that the Bengals will need to take for another postseason berth. Kirkendall also subsequently counted down the top five match-ups of the season. Think of this as an extension of those.
At first blush, is the 2015 schedule harder or easier than it was when it was first released? There are a variety of factors that must be considered, ranging from an introspective look, as well as examining the opponents and headway made by all teams during the past few months.
What's Up With The Browns?:
For the past few years, I've publicly been saying that not only will the Browns be a fly in the ointment for a lot of high-caliber teams, but they could push for the playoffs if they figure out their quarterback situation. Last year almost seemed like it began to click. Cleveland shot off to a 6-3 start, including a 24-3 drubbing of the Bengals on Thursday Night Football, and did so on the heels of a strong running game.
Then, it came crashing down with a resounding thud, as they finished the year 1-5. Johnny Manziel flopped in his first start against the Bengals and then completed a stint in rehab this offseason. There have been murmurs that Cleveland is done with Manziel, but only brought in veteran Josh McCown to challenge him for the starting gig. They grabbed four players in the three rounds to solidify the trenches, including defensive tackle Danny Shelton. Is that enough for them to take the next step and become more than just a spoiler in 2015, or will there be similar heartbreak in Cleveland this season?
The Key Is In The West:
The Bengals face both the AFC and NFC West divisions this year, pitting them up against numerous tough teams. The AFC West will be more important for Cincinnati, in terms of the conference playoff picture and might be the tougher division between the two, from top-to-bottom. The Chiefs and Chargers just missed out on the playoffs in 2014 after making it the year prior and Denver still has a high-powered offense led by Peyton Manning.
The Raiders haven't been competitive for a while, but Derek Carr showed promise as a rookie and now has Amari Cooper and Clive Walford added as actual passing threats. Throw in the fact that Cincinnati isn't a great team on opening weekend under Marvin Lewis (5-7) and their sub-par play during the past two trips to Oakland (2003, 2009) and Week 1 looks a little more tough initially thought.
Who knows what will happen in the NFC West, though? Will the Seattle Seahawks suffer a Super Bowl loss hangover? Will San Francisco be a shell of itself after so many departures, either by free agency or retirement? How hungry will the Bengals be to beat their former quarterback Carson Palmer out in the desert? These are all questions that will determine a good portion of the Bengals' schedule.
Three Words--"Prime Time Games":
Cincinnati goes up against the Browns, Texans, 49ers and Broncos on the big stage this year. The debate of the Bengals' performances in prime time games is a notorious one, with some thinking it's mere coincidence and others seeing a trend. Regardless, it's likely the Bengals will need to win two or three of these games to remain atop of the AFC, particularly with three of the four being conference games.
We've already talked about three of those teams a bit, but it's the Texans who might stick out the most on the list of those four. They knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, and surprised the league in 2014 with an 8-8 finish. It's inevitable that the league will gush over J.J. Watt during the telecast, but this one could prove critical. If they falter in a familiar fashion to the tune of, say, 1-3, that could prove disastrous for a playoff push.
Did The Bengals Significantly Better Themselves In 2015?:
Though they were far more active in free agency this year, the team brought in a lot of familiar faces who fizzled out with other clubs. Michael Johnson and Pat Sims are coming back to solidify a defensive line that struggled last year, while Denarius Moore brings some speed to the wide receiver corps. Seventh-round pick Mario Alford will provide the same, while third round picks tight end Tyler Kroft and linebacker Paul Dawson shore up depth in their respective position groups, which needed their help. But, is that enough?
Some believe that simply staying healthy and getting players properly rehabbed will be enough. After all, quarterback Andy Dalton was throwing to a receiver and tight end group consisting of Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate, Rex Burkhead and the recently-departed Kevin Brock in the playoff game versus the Colts. How many starters did the team really grab in free agency and the draft this year? Johnson is one, with Alford possibly being the new kick returner and Dawson vying for time, but is that all?
Cincinnati beefed up their depth and brought in rotational players, which is always critical, but are they significantly better? Maybe it's the re-utilization of the rotation, particularly on the defensive line, that will make them so. If that's the case, the team should be in that 10-win-average area again.