After a 6-9-1 season, the Cincinnati Bengals are hoping a much younger squad can make it back to the playoffs this season.
On Sunday the Bengals will begin that journey as they face their first hurdle: the Ravens, another team that’s coming off a disappointing campaign and also have reasons to believe they can have a winning year again. Week 1 is never a must win game, but Cincinnati needs to show early they’re a real competitor in 2017.
To start the year, the Bengals face the Ravens and Texans at home and Packers on the road. That is a very tough beginning of the season for the Bengals, even without accounting for the suspension of Vontaze Burfict, the leader and soul of the defense. Once Burfict returns, the Browns in Cleveland and the Bills at home are next up. The Bengals need to come out of this early part of the season with a winning record.
The Steelers will be waiting for them in Week 7, following a bye week, and Pittsburgh appears (at least right now) to be in full force, with most pundits believing they are among the top two teams in the AFC, right behind the defending Super Bowl champions New England Patriots.
I believe the Bengals can beat the Steelers, despite not being able to do so in 2016. Two years ago the Bengals went to Pittsburgh, the team played with grit and beat those yellow towel-waving enemies.
What the Bengals can’t do is go to Pittsburgh with a losing record and leave with a lot of ground to make up. The Steelers get to face the Bears, Browns and Jaguars prior to the Week 7 matchup, so it’s not difficult to imagine they could be at 6-1 by Week 7. They also go to Baltimore, which means their division record could already be 2-0 (with games against the other two AFC North teams before the first Bengals vs Steelers game of the year).
Of course many things can happen. Injuries and suspensions can derail any season very quickly. The Bengals know this. They were a completely different team when Burfict got back to form in 2016. They get to play the Browns, Bears and Jaguars after that Steelers game, so you might think they can always come back from a losing record to sneak into the playoffs, like in 2012 when they won seven of their last eight games, including the final two games, one of which was in Pittsburgh and the other against `the Ravens.
With so many pundits down on the Bengals, and a lot of AFC teams in the playoff picture (Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Chiefs, Broncos, Titans, Colts—if Andrew Luck can play at all—, Texans, Chargers) Cincinnati can’t afford to lose key games against direct rivals. Their Week 1 and Week 2 clashes are uber important, and for the reasons named above (they can’t give the Steelers a big lead in the division before their first encounter) the Bengals must start strong.
If the Bengals can win two of their first three games before facing the clearly tanking Bills and the still young and unproven Browns, it would go a long way. I’m not saying those latter games are already won, but the Bengals are far superior and need to prove they’re contenders by beating bad teams convincingly.
That matchup against the Steelers in Week 7 looms large in part because it could be a template of what the Bengals are as a team. Right after a bye week, in the middle of the year, Cincinnati should be a well-oiled machine. Going to Pittsburgh with an already good record would alleviate the burden of a possible loss, and also give the team a tremendous boost if they beat Pittsburgh and can get ahead of them. It also should provide some much-appreciated confidence. Starting strong builds up team morale; losing early kills it.
The Ravens play the Bears, Browns and Jaguars, but also have to face the Steelers and travel to Minnesota and Oakland before Week 7. In a tight race for a playoff spot every game you drop is very costly and the Bengals will want to come out strong against a division rival in Week 1.
Injuries to first-round pick John Ross and starting strong safety Shawn Williams, along with Burfict’s suspension mean the Bengals probably won’t be at full force until October, but that’s no excuse for losing games. Cincinnati has an opportunity to get ahead in the race to the playoffs before having to face their kryptonite in Pittsburgh in Week 7. In the weeks leading up to that game, the Bengals must win the games they’re meant to win. That starts on Sunday with the Ravens at home at Paul Brown Stadium.