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Bengals' 2015 schedule review, preview and analysis

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The Bengals finished the 2014 season with a record of 10-5-1, good enough for second place in the AFC North and the AFC's 5th seed. The team had to deal with a total of three prime time games, but there was always the feeling that they could have done better, despite some other problematic circumstances. How will the team fare this year, having to deal with two sets of back-to-back prime time games, and a potentially resurgent AFC North division?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 season has the potential to be a very good one for the Bengals, largely due to the pressure of contract situations for many important starters, as well as the stress on Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton to finally produce the post season success that has eluded the franchise for over two decades.

With four primetime games, and both the NFC and AFC West divisions on the schedule, the season looks daunting, especially for more pessimistic members of the Bengals' fanbase. However, if the Bengals can get in the habit of winning with this schedule, they should be highly prepared for the trials of the playoffs.

Week 1 Sun, Sep 13 4:25 @ Oakland - W

The Bengals start out the regular season with a mid-afternoon game in Oakland. The last time the Bengals and Raiders met was in 2012, when Carson Palmer finally made his widely publicized return to the Jungle. Palmer and the Raiders left Cincinnati with a painful 34-10 defeat, which helped the Bengals to qualify for the NFL playoffs for the second time in two years. Before that, the Bengals traveled out to Oakland in 2009 where Palmer and the Bengals were unable to overcome the Raiders in a 20-17 loss.

Why will this west coast excursion end differently than the last one? For starters, the Raiders just don't have the roster strength you'd expect. Amari Cooper should be a great answer for Derek Carr's lack of passing options, but how likely is it that they will already be gelled by Week 1? Anything can happen on any given Sunday, but don't forget the Bengals thrive in mid-afternoon games (5-1 in the Andy Dalton era). Most experts will be expecting the Bengals to start off the 2015 season with a win.

Week 2 Sun, Sep 20 1:00 vs. San Diego - W

When looking to the Chargers, most Bengals fans will probably think of the 27-10 loss that came at home, in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, ending a very promising campaign for the Bengals. However, the last time the Bengals went out to San Diego, they came away with a 17-10 victory in that same 2013 season, which saw the running and passing games both come together for a total and impressive win.

Coming off the confidence of a west coast road victory in Week 1, it can be expected the Bengals can handle a 1:00 p.m. game at home against the inconsistent Chargers. The Bengals' roster should be solidified and working well together at this point, so the Chargers should find it hard to answer to a Bengals' roster with relatively few holes.

Let's also remember the Chargers have gone through quite a bit of offseason turnover. Will the loss of Ryan Matthews be something the Chargers can easily overcome, and will Phillip Rivers be on board with the Chargers' plans? The Chargers will also be missing one of their offensive threats as Antonio Gates will be suspended for the first four games of the season. The Bengals' defense should be able to take advantage of the on- and off-field distractions to drive the team to victory.

Week 3 Sun, Sep 27 1:00 @ Baltimore - W

The Bengals are coming off of a season in which they were able to sweep the Ravens. Granted, this season, the Ravens won't be distracted by the Ray Rice scandal and should be more focused on their divisional games. That said, the Bengals simply match up well against Baltimore, which contributed significantly to their ability to sweep them last season. Can they do it again this season? A win in Week 3 would be a great first step.

During the Andy Dalton era, the Bengals have progressively gotten more and more confident against Baltimore. After losing his first three games against the Ravens, Dalton and the Bengals finally defeated the Ravens in Week 17 of the 2012 season, and have only dropped one to Baltimore since. That game was a 2013 outing in Baltimore that resulted in a 20-17 loss in overtime. However, even that game showed the Bengals put together an impressive comeback that involved two interceptions on Joe Flacco and an Andy Dalton touchdown. If the Ravens can get Justin Forsett going against the Bengals, it could be close, but if not, it could be a long day for the Bengals' purple and black division rivals.

Week 4 Sun, Oct 4 1:00 vs. Kansas City - W

If there is a perfect comparison for Andy Dalton out of the NFL's more veteran quarterbacks, it might be Alex Smith. Neither Dalton nor Smith are known as statistically great quarterbacks, but the impact they've made for their teams in the win column has been undeniable. The Bengals only managed to make the playoffs twice in the 20 years before Andy Dalton was drafted in 2011, and the team was suffering through a 4-12 season that qualifies as the worst record throughout the entire Carson Palmer era. Much in the same vein, Alex Smith showed up to a 2-14 Kansas City Chiefs team that managed to improve to 11-5 following his addition, as well as gain two straight seasons remaining deep in the playoff race.

Dalton and Smith are both game managers, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. NFL fans dream about their favorite team finding an elite quarterback who can solve all of their problems, but the reality is that a quarterback's most important job is to manage the game. Dalton and Smith aren't going to be breaking many Peyton Manning records any time soon, but they are perfectly capable of leading their team to victory over anyone on any given Sunday. The question is, who will answer the call on October 4th?

Without the deafening noise of Arrowhead Stadium, the newly revamped Bengals defense should have no problem at all against a Chiefs team that still lacks a true threat at wide receiver. The Bengals' youth at cornerback is finally starting to show signs of being ready to take on NFL offenses, and the addition of Paul Dawson into a rotating cast of Bengals linebackers should lead to the ability to shut down Travis Kelce relatively easily. If the Bengals can find an answer for Jamaal Charles, they will be in business.

Week 5 Sun, Oct 11 1:00 vs. Seattle - W

Many people might look at this prediction and call it crazy. A win over the team that has essentially dominated the NFL for the past two years, despite one incredible interception by Malcolm Butler? Much like the Chiefs, the Seahawks have been known as more of a homebody that can be upset on the road (22-2 at home since 2012).

When looking at the Bengals' and Seahawks' rosters, there are quite a bit of similarities to point to, albeit with an emphasis on the Bengals' youth. Marshawn Lynch has terrorized NFL defenses for years with the Seahawks and Bills, much like many are expecting Jeremy Hill to do after an excellent rookie season. The Seahawks have structured their defense around a solid defensive line and a shut down secondary, much like what the Bengals have been doing by signing Pat Sims and Michael Johnson, as well as the recent youth movement at DB. It would be a strong generalization to say the Bengals are setting themselves up like the Seahawks, but the similarities are too hard to ignore.

With the confidence and momentum of a four game win streak for the Bengals, Seattle could be in for a close but tough loss. With the Seahawks' defensive line not being quite the dominant force it was in 2013, Jeremy Hill could look to have a serious game against the Seahawks. He'll need it, because things aren't going to go well if Andy Dalton is forced to throw to the middle. This prediction also rides on the Bengals' defense's ability to bounce back from a down 2014 season. If Michael Johnson, P.J. Dawson, and Pat Sims can make the kind of impact that they're expected to, the Seahawks will have a rough time dealing with the Bengals away from Seattle.

Week 6 Sun, Oct 18 1:00 @ Buffalo - L

Don't look now, but the Bills could be the next big surprise juggernaut in the NFL. Granted, they will need to maintain a better quarterback situation than they have in previous years, but they have enough talent on defense and in a run game featuring both Lesean McCoy and Fred Jackson to wear down the Bengals over a long and difficult road game. Kiko Alonso might be gone, but the Bills have a virtually unknown replacement for him in Cincinnati's own Preston Brown, who has already shown flashes of being able to handle the game at the NFL level. Every win streak must come to an end, and it makes sense for the Bengals to end theirs against a team that most people will have them beating.

Week 7 BYE

Week 8 Sun, Nov 1 1:00 @ Pittsburgh - L

Go ahead, cringe and scoff at this prediction all you need. When you're finished, remember how much the Bengals tend to struggle after the bye week under Marvin Lewis. It's not like the Bengals have never won after a bye week under Lewis, but going up against a fierce division rival, on the road, in a situation in which the team typically struggles, with a Steelers' offense that has been cooking, it's hard to imagine the Bengals breaking their post-bye week funk.

Don't forget last season, when the Bengals were embarrassingly swept by the Steelers in a 42-21 late game collapse at home, as well as a 27-17 AFC North championship decider in Week 17, in which the defensive line put virtually no pressure on Roethlisberger, and A.J. Green literally dropped the ball on the Bengals' hopes to win the division for a second year in a row.

Week 9 Thur, Nov 5 8:25 vs. Cleveland - W

It's Battle of Ohio week in early November, and both teams have plenty left to prove. The Browns need to prove they can consistently put together an offense that knows how to do more than just run the ball, as well as consistently win games. And the Bengals need to prove their defense is really all it's cracked up to be. By this point in the season, both teams should know themselves back and forth, so what will really matter is the ability of the coaching staff to get the best out of their players. Can Marvin Lewis put his team's promising season back on track, or can Mike Pettine finally prove he is the long-term head coach the city of Cleveland has been looking for?

Remember last year when the Browns handed the Bengals a beat down on Thursday Night Football in Cleveland? With a score of 24-0, and a quarterback rating of 2 for Andy Dalton, the team and fans were humiliated, scarcely providing any reason to show their face for the next week. Granted, the team got revenge in the following Battle of Ohio in Cleveland with a 30-0 beatdown in which Johnny Manziel posted a quarterback rating of 1. However, the team should be looking for primetime revenge this year. Bengals fans already got to see their team respond, now it's time for the whole country to see their revenge.

Week 10 Mon, Nov 16 8:30 vs. Houston - L

The Bengals proved last season, in a decisive 22-13 road victory, that the team is able to handle playing the Houston Texans, despite  the 31-10 and 19-13 back to back playoff losses in 2011 and 2012. Even so, although the Bengals took advantage of a reeling Texans team dealing with injuries and turnover, JJ Watt knows how to terrorize Andy Dalton (2 sacks, 7 tackles, and a pick six in career games against the Bengals). Unless the Bengals' offensive line really makes some strides, it could be extremely hard to deal with the man who many believe should have been last year's NFL MVP.

Furthermore, Primetime is just not a good time for the Bengals. A week after the Bengals managed to win one, it could be tough to repeat the feat against Houston, especially with the extra rest time. Most teams would love the extra day of rest, and utilize it well when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, the Bengals are just not that kind of team, based on their history. They will get another crack at Monday night later this season, but it could be too much for them to handle up against a potentially much-improved Houston Texans team.

Week 11 Sun, Nov 22 4:05 @ Arizona - W

It's not a return to The Jungle for Carson Palmer, but it's going to be enough to make Palmer vs. Bengals II a storyline to follow for the season. Last time Palmer played the Bengals, he came to Cincinnati with the Raiders, and left largely in pancake form, courtesy of Geno Atkins.

The Cardinals are a much better team than the Raiders, but the Bengals should still know how to handle the quarterback and force the Cardinals to rely on their not-so-exciting running game. Andre Ellington has shown flashes of potentially being a solid NFL running back, but that is a far cry from being a serious threat that makes up for the Cardinals not having any other serious backfield threats. And even that is assuming that Ellington returns well from the injury problems that derailed his 2014 season.

Week 12 Sun Nov 29 1:00 vs. St. Louis - W

The Rams don't get the attention of the other NFC West teams, and for good reason. By this point in the season, the Rams should still be in the playoff hunt, and their defensive line should solidify enough to put some pressure on the Bengals' running game. However, the Rams run the kind of defense that Andy Dalton and his arsenal of weapons should be able to handle easily.

If Tyler Eifert is still healthy by this point in the season, this could be a break out game for him. The Rams haven't been known as a team that bends to tight ends very often, but 12 weeks should be enough time for Dalton and Eifert to gel. The Rams' defensive line has been significantly improved this offseason, and their cornerback tandem of E.J. Gaines and Janoris Jenkins will likely be enough to hold down the Bengals' inconsistent receiver corps, so tight end is about the only position available to really make much of an impact. Green might also have a great game in this week, but expect to see Eifert shred the Rams' defense through the middle.

Week 13 Sun, Dec 6 1:00 @ Cleveland - L

The Bengals very rarely manage to sweep the Browns, despite how bad they have been in recent years. Just like how the Bengals found their revenge on Thursday Night Football in Week 9, the Browns will be looking to defeat their in-state rivals to restore some pride in a season that has probably been derailed by this point. Will Johnny Manziel be under center in Cleveland by this point in the season? Given the Browns' recent history, you never know.

Week 14 Sun, Dec 13 1:00 vs. Pittsburgh - W

At this point in the season, the Bengals are looking at an 8-4 record, and potentially a crossroads for their season. This season will probably end in the postseason, but will they end up as division champions or collapse and squeak into the playoffs with a wild card seed? This game against Pittsburgh really counts, and expecting the Bengals to win might not be as far fetched as it seems.

In 2012, the Bengals clinched a playoff spot, while simultaneously knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs with a 13-10 win in Pittsburgh in Week 16.  The following season, they failed to win in the pivotal game of the season against Pittsburgh, in which Kevin Huber broke his jaw, but they weren't too far off from a win over the Steelers in either game in 2014. Yes, they lost both games, but the team was in the middle of a comeback when Green committed a critical fumble in Week 17, and the week 14 game in Cincinnati was close until the defense completely collapsed in the fourth quarter.

Three losses in a row to the Pittsburgh Steelers are simply too many. Marvin Lewis and the Bengals know that the road to success in the AFC North goes through Pittsburgh, so the team will need to beat them at least once. After suffering the loss following the 2015 season's bye week, expect the Bengals to come out here in Week 14, in what could be a pivotal game in the race for the 2015 AFC North crown.

Week 15 Sun, Dec 20 8:30 @ San Francisco - W

It's finally here. The dreaded two week road primetime stretch that sent shivers down the spines of nearly every Bengals fan when the schedule was released earlier this offseason.

Luckily, the 49ers aren't looking too good heading into the 2015 season. For starters, the man who brought the franchise back to it's consistent winning ways was essentially driven out of his position by the management, which likely influenced the departures of important starters such as Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland, and Anthony Davis. It is entirely possible that Jim Tomsula could be exactly what the 49ers need to handle one of the worst offseasons in NFL history, but it is much more likely that they will struggle for at least this coming season.

With all of the turnover this season on the roster and the coaching staff in San Francisco, as well as the match ups posed by a solidified Bengals' defense, Jeremy Hill in his second year, and a loaded Bengals' passing arsenal, the Bengals could finally learn what it means to be able to control their fate in primetime. Plus, it's always sweet beating the 49ers.

Week 16 Mon, Dec 28 8:30 @ Denver - W

Think back to last year, before the Bengals shocked the NFL world by handily defeating the Broncos on Monday Night Football, thanks in large part to Dre Kirkpatrick's beautiful pick-sixes. Yes, plural. No one gave them a chance then, and relatively few people will give them a chance now, especially coming off another road primetime game the previous week in San Francisco. Peyton Manning might be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but he is 39-years-old and not getting any younger. Can his body handle another year of brutal NFL football? If not, the Bengals are lucky to draw the Broncos so late in the season, when Peyton may be more focused on retirement than football.

If the Bengals can lock down a win in Week 16 this year, they will finally have learned how to win consistently in primetime. The win should also keep the team's hopes for a first-round bye open. With only Baltimore to go through before the playoffs, things will be looking very exciting in the Queen City.

Week 17 Sun, Jan 3 1:00 vs. Baltimore - W

There's a good chance that, like last season, the Bengals could be participating in what amounts to the AFC North Championship game in Week 17. Although it is possible that the Bengals have already clinched the division at this point, it is much more fun to think of this as the Bengals' chance to redeem themselves after a disappointing performance against Pittsburgh last season in the final game of the year.

As discussed earlier, the Bengals should still be good enough to sweep Baltimore this season, so don't be too surprised to see it happen. Joe Flacco has historically struggled against the Bengals, with an average QBR of 67.59, 13 all-time touchdowns, and 18 interceptions.  Flacco is 7-7 against the Bengals all time, but, like in Week 3, it will most likely require a major effort from Forsett to get the best of a very hot Bengals team.

Will this year finally be the year that the team breaks their playoff curse and makes some noise? Stay tuned.

Predicted Result: 12-4; AFC North Champions