The addition of one extra game does not diminish the importance of every other contest an NFL team has in a season. Whether it be 16 games, or now 17 games, every one of them is significant; especially for a team that has won just six of them over the last two seasons.
2021 is a gigantic prove-it year for the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s the third year of head coach Zac Taylor’s tenure, and the second with quarterback Joe Burrow. Another season that ends with a top-five draft pick won’t be received kindly by the front office or the fans of the organization.
Wins need to start piling up for Taylor and his staff, and while their upcoming schedule features prime opportunities for victory, there are more than a handful of games that will greatly challenge them. That tends to be the case when the three other teams in their division made the playoffs last year, and several quality quarterbacks are set to face them in the 11 other games.
There are plenty of storylines we can go over, in fact, we already did that earlier this week. But what are the games that provide the Bengals an opportunity to send shockwaves throughout the league? Here are the five statement games for the Bengals this season.
Week 3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The last time the Bengals were good aligns with the last time they went on the road and beat the Steelers. 2015 feels like an eternity ago now, but it has been that long ago since the Bengals exited Heinz Field with a W. That was also the last time they beat the Steelers at all until December 21st, 2020.
Pittsburgh will get their chance at revenge very early in the season. They’ve grown accustomed to defeating Cincinnati on a regular basis, but considering the respective paths the two teams are going down, it won’t be easy to keep that status quo.
This is a chance for the Bengals to really turn the tide in the rivalry. It will be too early in the season to tell if the Steelers are truly on the downswing. This can ultimately become the crushing blow that sends them spiraling, or a loss that signals the dynamic hasn’t changed all that much.
Week 5 vs. Green Bay Packers
The first assumption we’ll make in this article is that Aaron Rodgers will be the Packers’ starting quarterback for the 2021 season. There were many fools, including me, who believed Rodgers was done as a top-tier quarterback leading up to last season. He returned to elite form in 2020 and was a couple plays away from getting Green Bay back to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade. Anytime he’s on the field, the opposition can only hope to keep up with him.
Joe Burrow was drafted by the Bengals for many reasons; one of them being to win games like this one.
A win against one of the best quarterbacks and teams in the league would make quite the impression. Sure, it’ll be at home and still fairly early in the season, but considering the gauntlet of opponents Cincinnati has to deal with after their Week 10 bye, it would be mighty helpful to have a high quality win in their back pocket.
Week 13 vs. Los Angeles Chargers
On the subject of quarterback matchups, there’s no other signal-caller Burrow will be compared to more than Justin Herbert. Picked five selections after Burrow in last year’s NFL Draft, Herbert surprised everyone last season by winning Rookie of the Year honors and looking like a totally new passer in comparison to his Oregon days. The one game he didn’t play in last year was the first game against Burrow’s Bengals.
Over a year later, we’ll get to see the two face off for the first time. But while Burrow vs. Herbert will be the headliner story of this game, it’ll be intriguing to see how each quarterback’s supporting cast impacts the game. The Chargers played no games this offseason when addressing their offensive line, ensuring Herbert would have an sturdy unit blocking for him. Meanwhile, the Bengals went out and gave Burrow an elite wide receiver trio that will help him put up points with the best of them.
Two young and aspiring rosters clashing late in the season—if both teams find themselves in the playoff race, this should definitely garner national interest.
Week 16 vs. Baltimore Ravens
This matchup didn’t use to be so one-sided, and you could say the same about the Bengals and Browns. Ever since Lamar Jackson became Baltimore’s established starter, Cincinnati has found a way to disappoint against him. It hasn’t always been pretty for Jackson, but even when he’s not at his best, the Bengals have found a way to embarrass themselves.
The last three meetings between the two teams have been abysmal in one way, shape, or form. The Ravens have outscored the Bengals 114-19! And two of those games where at Paul Brown Stadium!
Yes, the Bengals play the Ravens earlier in the season on the road, but Taylor and his team cannot expect to make the playoffs and lay another duck at home against Jackson’s squad. It just can’t happen again. This needs to be a competitive game, not another merciless thrashing.
Week 17 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
The second and final assumption we’ll make in this article is that the Chiefs will not have the No. 1 seed in AFC locked up at this point. This will make this game as important as it looks on paper.
No matter how cold the weather is, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid will find a way to put up points against you. It’s the same reality when facing the Packers: Try your best to keep up. There’s no stopping this offense, unless their offensive line resembles that of what they were forced to put out there in the Super Bowl. This offseason pretty much eliminated that from happening again, though.
No one will expect the Bengals to come out on top of this one, and no one realistically should. I suppose it will compared to the 2003 matchup when Chad Johnson guaranteed a victory over the then-undefeated Chiefs. Wouldn’t a repeat of that be something? Quite the statement to make on the doorsteps of the postseason.