When the NFL's schedule was released a week ago, it was reported here and elsewhere that the Cincinnati Bengals were owners of the league's 23rd toughest slate.
Across the next three days, we'll show you why that might be a little misleading. The Bengals will have challenges in 2014. Don't let the previous win-loss records of the teams they will be facing fool you.
Hidden challenge: Weeks 16/17 turnaround
OK, so since the Bengals' schedule release we've discussed the inherent difficulty the incredibly early Week 4 bye poses. We've also opined on the three straight home games followed by three straight road games running from late October to late November. And, like most others who have dissected the Bengals' 2014 slate, we've written about the two games against the division-rival Steelers that close out the final four weeks of the season.
Those are some of the obvious spots where the Bengals could be tripped up. Where else could issues arise? As was mentioned here Wednesday, the entire month of October could be challenging. As it stands now, Cincinnati has the second-toughest October schedule in the league. Three of the four games are against reigning division champions.
In addition to navigating that month, the Bengals will have a unique test at the end of December, too. With a pair of important games against Denver and Pittsburgh in Weeks 16 and 17, they have the tough task of fighting through the combination of a short week and the holidays.
The Week 16 game is a Monday night showdown against the Broncos on Dec. 22. Six days later, the Bengals travel to Pittsburgh to close out the season against the Steelers. If the AFC North race is as tight as many believe it could be, the Bengals might need to win both of those games and can't focus on resting their starters for any significant amount of time in either. They both could be emotion-filled, big-game precursors to a hopeful playoff run that will similarly be full of high energy, emotion and importance.
If there was ever a year to have a late bye, this year would be it.
While the short turnaround from Monday night to Sunday afternoon isn't too worrisome for the Bengals -- after all, it's better than going Sunday to Thursday -- they also have the potential added distraction of having Christmas fall right in the middle of their week of Steelers preparation. Players and coaches whose families don't live in Cincinnati will have to get creative with their holiday plans. Sitting down and making those plans can be more taxing than actually spending the time away from the facility with family. To help work around some of their holiday plans last season, many Bengals set aside time with their families in San Diego in December. The trip fell after a bye, and right after Thanksgiving. For players who were originally from the West Coast, it served as a reunion. For the families of others, the trip was designed to be a brief getaway.
For reasons that on the surface have little to do with football, the combination of the short week and the holiday could become a bugaboo for the Bengals if they don't plan around it properly. That is why this turnaround could be considered a hidden challenge.