Now that the NFL's regular-season schedule has been released, attention will slowly return back to the draft, which is now exactly two weeks away. You'll see that transition back shortly here on the Bengals blog, but we have to talk a little bit more about the schedule first, right?
1. Early tests loom. You've probably read your fair share of analysis on the Cincinnati Bengals' 2014 regular-season schedule in the past 13 hours or so, but here's a little bit more for you. (There's also one last Bengals schedule-related item slated to hit the blog later in the day. I promise that's it after that.) After looking at Cincinnati's schedule a little more deeply following Wednesday night's release, I was struck by one thing: how top- and bottom-heavy it was. Across the first eight weeks, the Bengals have some real challenges when they face the division-rival Ravens twice, Tom Brady's New England Patriots, the desperate-to-prove-last-season-was-a-fluke Falcons in Week 2, a surgically repaired Cam Newton and the always difficult Andrew Luck -- on the road. If you break those first seven games down a little deeper, though, it appears the opening stretch could be easier than it seems on paper. The Bengals and Ravens have a good chance to at least split those two games, the Patriots proved beatable when they visited Cincinnati last year, the Falcons could still be finding their offensive identity early, Newton doesn't have the same number of playmakers around him, and the Bengals beat Luck and the Colts last year. So they're tests, but certainly ones Cincinnati can pass. Still, if the Bengals can somehow emerge from the opening stretch with a 5-2 record or better, they would have sent their warning shot to the rest of the league.
2. The tricky part. The tricky part of Cincinnati's schedule, though, will be sustaining any early success following a Week 4 bye. Even though the schedule eases up with a November that will be against Jacksonville (4-12 in 2013), Cleveland (4-12), Houston (2-14) and Tampa Bay (4-12), it picks right back up with two in December against the division-rival Steelers and a Week 16 nationally televised home game against the Broncos. Split the Steelers series and beat the Broncos, and the Bengals improve (based off our example in bullet point No. 1) to 7-3. Win three of the four games against the Jaguars, Browns, Texans and Buccaneers and suddenly they're 10-4. That leaves the revenge game against the Browns in Week 14, and one at New Orleans in Week 11. Split those two games and they're 11-5. The way the schedule reads, it's possible for the Bengals to go 11-5. But it's just as possible they go 9-7 or 8-8. Sustaining any early success will be hard with such an early bye. It also could make it tougher for them to be as rested and healthy for the postseason as they were last season when they had a Week 12 bye. That should be reason enough for them to make claiming a first-round bye a legitimate season goal.
3. Is 10-6 the number? We'll make this brief, but check out ESPN.com's NFL Nation team-by-team schedule predictions here. Yes, it's April. Yes, the draft is still two weeks away. And yes, we're making season predictions. Like several of my beat reporter colleagues, I agree that it's ludicrous to make such early predictions, and it's downright asinine if these predictions get held up as the gold standard for what a team should be in 2014. Having said that, though, is 10-6 an accurate depiction of the record Cincinnati could obtain?
4. Pro Bowl or bust? With all the schedule news, this story got a little lost in the shuffle Wednesday, but I believe it's a curious read. It's from our Bengals blog, and it's about receiver Marvin Jones, who believes this can be a Pro Bowl year for him. It'll be difficult for an essentially No. 2 wideout to earn Pro Bowl recognition, but there's no reason to believe his dream is unobtainable. After all, defenses are now entering this season with the unenviable task of trying to game plan around both he and A.J. Green. They learned last season that they can't devote too much attention to Green or Jones will go off. They also learned if they pay too much attention to Jones, Green will have a big day. Mohamed Sanu also could affect the schemes designed to stop Green and Jones. Receivers coach James Urban admitted to Bengals.com earlier this offseason that he didn't use Sanu appropriately last season, leading to his drop in production. If Cincinnati adequately adds him back to the mix this season, it will certainly affect the quantity of passes Jones gets, but it might not affect the quality of plays he produces. Jones is well within his right of thinking big this season. Regardless of whether he'll be playing in the Pro Bowl or not, expect a big year from him.
5. Red Rifle, Red Rifle. The Bengals' "Red Rifle" got a chance last weekend to meet his namesake, a horse named "Red Rifle." Cincinnati's sometimes beloved, sometimes beleaguered "Red Rifle," quarterback Andy Dalton, traveled to Lexington, Ky., to watch the other Red Rifle compete in a race at Keeneland Tracks. The day didn't go well for the equine Red Rifle. The horse finished ninth.