The Cincinnati Bengals had a very tough schedule in 2016. A tough start to the season included games against the Steelers, Patriots, and Broncos. The Bengals managed to win the two games they should have against the Jets and Dolphins early on, but barely against the Jets. They also had to play the NFC East, which was an extremely tough division to play last year with two of the top teams in the NFL. This year, it doesn't look like the Bengals’ schedule is going to be nearly as difficult, though a lot can change in one year in the NFL and some teams wil be surprisingly tough to beat.
Here’s my take on the five toughest games the Bengals will play this season, followed by some opinions from the Cincy Jungle staff, too.
5) Denver Broncos
The Broncos are a weird team to try and categorize as they have one of the best defenses in the league. Dating back to their Super Bowl winning season they have had to completely carry the offense though and last season, they struggled to do that. They made an effort to bolster their offensive line and they may finally be set to make that leap people have thought they'd make for awhile. The quarterback situation is still a little weak between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, but if they can get decent play out of one of them then they will be a tough team to beat in 2017. Another thing making this game interesting for the Bengals is that the Broncos are now being coached by former Bengals secondary coach Vance Joseph.
The Texans have possibly the best pass rushing trio in the league. The only reason it’s possibly and not definitely is because we don't know for sure if J.J. Watt will end up being able to stay healthy all season. If he can stay healthy, the thought of him paired with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus will strike fear into the heart of every opposing offensive line and quarterback they face. Like the Broncos, the Texans’ biggest question is if they will get sustainable play from their offense this season. Last offseason they added Brock Osweiler which was a move that ended up blowing up in their faces. They drafted Deshaun Watson who seemingly is their best hope and will hopefully beat out Tom Savage and take over. If Watson can play like he did in college the Texans could easily be real contenders very soon. The positive here is an unclear quarterback situation in Week 2, the negative is a scary defensive line against the Bengals’ newly assembled offensive line.
The Titans were one of the most improved teams in 2016 and a big reason was their great offensive line. The offensive line played great including young right tackle Jack Conklin. However they had some issues at the skill positions with weaknesses at wide receiver and cornerback and they addressed both positions in free agency and the draft. If they can properly utilize the new weapons to improve, they could be one of the best teams in the AFC. It all will also come down to Marcus Mariota as he has been fairly streaky in his career showing flashes of great play but not sustaining it through a full season.
The Packers have a lot of questions regarding their secondary and linebacker units this season. However there is one thing that makes up for that, and it is quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The key to beating the Packers is containing and getting pressure on Rodgers. They also have a good group of wide receivers and added tight end Martellus Bennett. Running back is a bit of a question mark, but they've shown they can get by without a great running game. Rodgers will also be looking to beat the Bengals for the first time in his NFL career.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers create two of the toughest games for the Bengals every year. They improved greatly on their defense in the 2016 season and they still had a strong offense. They have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL and great skill position players. The biggest question mark, as weird as it is to say, is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. There are weeks where Roethlisberger looks like one of the best players in the NFL. Then there are times where he costs his team games with his poor play. He even flirted with retirement in the offseason, even if no one believed him.
Here are the thoughts from other CJ writers on the Bengals’ toughest games.
1.) Week 13 vs Steelers (primetime)
2.) Week 3 at Green Bay
3.) Week 15 at Minnesota
4.) Week 2 vs Houston
5.) Week 10 at Tennessee
To me, there's no question that at Pittsburgh is the toughest game for the Bengals this season, though that partially speaks to how favorable the Bengals' schedule is. Right now, I'd put the Patriots, Falcons, Cowboys and Seahawks as the NFL's four best teams, yet Cincinnati won't play any of them in the regular season. You could also argue the Raiders and Giants are better, and that's two more teams the Bengals won't face. Saying all of this, winning at and home against Pittsburgh has proven to be very difficult. While many matchups against Pittsburgh have gone down to the wire since Marvin Lewis got here, it's still proven to be a challenging hump to get over. Making this even more challenging is this will be one of the most balanced Steelers teams in the Mike Tomlin era. As long as Martavis Bryant can stay out of trouble, that offense is going to be a top-five offense and may very well be the NFL's best. But the defense is finally catching up and becoming a solid unit as well. I expect a big jump from that unit this year with much of their starters still fairly young and improving. I still think this Bengals offense can move the ball on them fairly easy, which could make this a fun series in 2017.
Despite a projected low strength of schedule, there are still a clear handful of road games that will prove to be quite challenging. Starting with Green Bay in Week 3; they've never lost to Aaron Rodgers but they've been mighty close games. Going up to Lambeau against the best arm talent in the game is never easy for any team. In the middle of November they go back to back on the road at Tennessee and at Denver. Tennessee should roll it's way to a home playoff game this year with the help of their offense, which looks to be a problem for any defense. The Bengals haven't won in Denver since 1975, so playing in Mile High Stadium versus that defense will be extremely difficult. Pittsburgh comes to town in Week 13 and the Bengals haven't beaten them at home since 2013 on Monday Night, which is when this game will played... and finally the Bengals will finally play Mike Zimmer's Minnesota squad at the second year US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the Vikings gave up only 18 points per game last year.
Thursday night Sept 14 vs Houston, will be a tough one. The Bengals have struggled in primetime and against Houston. This game has both, plus coming off a short week following their victory over Baltimore (hopefully) in the opener. Outside of that, the two Pittsburgh games. Primetime at home, and on the road.
2. Green Bay
2. Green Bay