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Ranking the Bengals’ 2021 games from easiest to toughest

The beginning of Cincinnati’s schedule appears much easier than the ending.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In the month of May, every NFL team is infallible. That’s why it’s the best time to make predictions for games that will happen months from now.

The Cincinnati Bengals’ 2021 schedule has an interesting balance to it. They’ll play nine home games, but most of them will be against the toughest teams they have on the docket. Conversely, the teams they’ll face on the road don’t appear to be as imposing. Five of their first eight games are away from Cincinnati, and five of their last seven are in Cincinnati.

Amidst all this symmetry are the individual games themselves. In this article, we aren’t going to predict the outcomes of all 17 contests. Instead, we’re going to rank each one in terms of projected difficulty, starting with the easier matchups.

17: Week 6 @ Detroit Lions

Only the Houston Texans are projected to win fewer games than the Lions this upcoming season, per BetMGM. A healthy Joe Burrow with his weapons should fare better than Jared Goff. The Bengals are simply the better team and have the better quarterback on paper. Despite this being on the road, this is the least threatening game on their schedule.

16: Week 11 @ Las Vegas Raiders

We’ve yet to discern if the “Black Hole” will carry over to Sin City. The Raiders will attract many fans when their new stadium can fully house them, but will the allure of Vegas make it more of a neutral setting? Either way, the Raiders aren’t a very imposing team on paper after making minimal changes to their porous defense. Their offensive line is also extremely questionable at the moment.

15: Week 8 @ New York Jets

Going from Adam Gase to Robert Saleh sounds great, but the Jets need to prove they’re headed in the right direction. Carl Lawson will need a bonafide revenge game because the rest of their pass rush still needs work. On offense, Zach Wilson is an interesting wild card that might be able to find success with his special arm talent. Regardless, the Jets are still just potential at this point. The only reason they’re ahead of the Raiders is because this will be the third-straight road game in three weeks for the Bengals.

14: Week 4 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Thursday Night Football)

This very well could be the easiest game on the Bengals’ schedule, but the Thursday Night factor cannot be ignored. They will be playing on three days’ rest after a road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, so they may still be licking their wounds from that battle. Thursday Night games in general are wacky, but at least the game will be in Cincinnati. There’s also no reason to think first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence won’t be mentally ready to rematch against Burrow with the 2020 National Championship game on his mind.

13: Week 1 vs. Minnesota Vikings

Mike Zimmer is still a great defensive mind, and the Vikings have a one-two combo at receiver and a star running back to put up points. But you don’t build your offense around Burrow’s strengths just so he can lose at home to Kirk Cousins. Burrow expects to make his return for this game, and if he’s 100%, he’ll have a good chance of getting his third-career win right out of the gate.

12: Week 2 @ Chicago Bears

Another NFC North team! Da Bears may now have their most talented quarterback in the history of their franchise in Justin Fields. The question is how soon will he start over Andy Dalton? The former Bengals quarterback will surely want the chance to improve to 2-0 against the team who drafted him 10 years ago. Ironically, the Bengals will likely rather face him than the unknown in Fields. Their offensive line may still be gelling early in the season, so they may have to rely on their defense in case Chicago’s impressive pass rush disrupts their offense.

11: Week 12 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

This Bengals team isn’t scared of the Steelers anymore; not after what happened in December. Pittsburgh is expected to take a step back this year, but a Mike Tomlin-coached team probably won’t be downright terrible, unless Ben Roethlisberger’s arm does actually fall off. The Week 3 matchup may give us a better idea on the state of this rivalry.

10: Week 13 vs. Los Angeles Chargers

At this point in the season, we should know whether or not Justin Herbert really is or isn’t a completely different quarterback than the one he was at Oregon. In a new offense with a new coaching staff, Herbert can either continue progressing into one of the next best passers, or regression will hit him hard despite his offensive line being much improved. The Chargers being perpetually cursed sort of eliminates the possibility of them receiving the benefit of the doubt.

9: Week 15 @ Denver Broncos

Denver is such a wild card of a team, but playing in their house is never an easy task. The Bengals are 3-13 all-time on the road against the Broncos, but the last time they played there in 2017, they won and broke a 10-game losing streak in the process. If we knew who Drew Lock really was, the projected difficulty of this game would be easier to gauge, but Lock remains a bit of a mystery. The Broncos are talented enough—when healthy—to carry Lock if need be.

8: Week 3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Another early test for the Bengals’ o-line to prove itself. The Steelers seemed to fluster Burrow in their first matchup last year in Pittsburgh, and that defense is still pretty loaded up front. Luckily for the Bengals, their defensive line also has a favorable matchup, as the Steeler’s o-line looks even worse on paper than the Bengals’. The Steelers usually fare well at home in September (20-10 since Heinz Field opened in 2002), so even if their collapse appears imminent, the Bengals have to prove they’re truly the better team now.

7: Week 14 vs. San Francisco 49ers

If this was Week 4, you could feel confident Jimmy Garoppolo will be starting. By the time Week 14 rolls around, it might be Trey Lance’s show. Even if it’s the more physically limited Garoppolo, the 49ers had no trouble waltzing into Paul Brown Stadium two years ago and dropping 41 points on a helpless Bengals’ defense. Cincinnati should be better equipped to handle Kyle Shanahan’s offense this time around, but San Francisco has the talent to compete with anybody when they’re healthy, which they weren’t last season.

6: Week 9 vs. Cleveland Browns

Since Zac Taylor’s hiring, this rivalry has been more interesting when the game is in Cincinnati. The Bengals offense had no trouble putting up points against the Browns, and the Browns can say the same thing. Both teams took the initiative this offseason to shore up their defensive weaknesses in their own unique ways. Can Baker Mayfield look human against this team for once? It’ll have to be a wait-and-see situation.

5: Week 5 vs. Green Bay Packers

In all likelihood, this will be the last time Aaron Rodgers plays the Bengals. That is, if Rodgers plays for the Packers at all this year. The cloudiness of that situation makes this game very interesting. Rodgers hasn’t had the easiest of times against Cincinnati, and he’s 0-1 in Paul Brown Stadium. That said, the Packers are still wearing the NFC North crown and can make another playoff run if Rodgers is willing to lead them. This will be a great statement opportunity for Burrow and his defense.

4: Week 16 vs. Baltimore Ravens

Now we’re entering the next level. Kicking off a brutal three-game stretch to end the season is their second game against the Ravens, a team that the Bengals have not come close to in recent years. Lamar Jackson has more to prove, yes, but not against this team. The Ravens don’t have any glaring red flags on their roster, and they have a proven track record against Taylor’s Bengals. In the heart of the playoff race, this game will be huge.

3: Week 7 @ Baltimore Ravens

Two months before the game in the previous paragraph happens, the Bengals will face the Ravens in the middle of a three-game road stretch. Not ideal!

2: Week 18 @ Cleveland Browns

Will the Bengals be playing spoiler, or will this game having playoff implications on both sides and be flexed to primetime? Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran all over the Bengals last year in Cleveland. On January 9th, they will probably try to do something similar. The Bengals will need to keep up by any means necessary.

1: Week 17 vs. Kansas City Chiefs

If the Bengals want to be anything anytime soon, they’ll have to go through the Chiefs. The AFC North is tough, but the Chiefs are the rightful kings of the entire AFC. They may even have the conference wrapped up by this point in the season, but in the event that they won’t, there’s no team that will challenge the Bengals more.