<
>

Hidden challenge: Bengals' reunion game

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.

Since Wednesday, we've been showing 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. We close out this brief series with the third hidden challenge:

Hidden challenge: Bengals' reunion game

A quick recap before we discuss Cincinnati's reunion game with former Bengals Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins and Clinton McDonald.

On Wednesday, we broke down the hidden challenge that exists throughout the month of October. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals have the second-hardest October of any team in the league. That, of course, is based off last season's won-loss records. Of the four teams the Bengals will see in October, three are reigning division champions. The other team won the Super Bowl just two years ago.

Thursday's breakdown covered the short and unique turnaround the Bengals will have between Weeks 16 and 17. After facing the Broncos at home in a Monday night game, the Bengals travel to Pittsburgh for their regular-season finale. Both games could be incredibly important with respect to the postseason race, and they could help give the Bengals momentum entering the playoffs. The problem, though, is that the games sandwich the Christmas holiday and could make an already shortened important week a bit more of a headache because of logistics and rest. This stretch also closes a stretch of 13 straight, post-bye games.

Right in the middle of that 13-game stretch is a road game in Tampa, Fla. It will be the first game this edition of the Bengals has played against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that signed three former Bengals this offseason -- Johnson, Collins and McDonald. The Bengals were hoping to retain Johnson and Collins. McDonald was drafted by Cincinnati in 2010, but spent the past three seasons in Seattle. Had they re-signed Johnson or Collins, the Bengals wouldn't have been able to start negotiating contract extensions for quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict. They are hoping to extend both before this season begins.

Sure, the emotions will be high for Cincinnati's first game against three of their more beloved former locker room personalities, but that's not the main reason this game could be a hidden challenge. The Bengals also will be wrapping up a six-week stretch that includes three straight home games followed by three straight road games. It also will be the final game of a month that could help determine how realistic a fourth consecutive Bengals playoff berth will be.

After coming off a difficult October, the Bengals' strength of schedule eases considerably in November. Only one of the five teams they play in the month had a winning record last season -- New Orleans. Tampa Bay, Houston, Cleveland and Jacksonville had a combined 14 wins last season.

But don't get too caught up with those win totals. Each of those teams are expected to be better this season, particularly the Buccaneers, who had arguably the busiest free agency period in the league. They clearly got stronger with the talent they added, and the hiring of coach Lovie Smith should aid a turnaround, too. That's one reason why that Nov. 30 game at Raymond James Stadium could be a hidden challenge. That it comes at the end of the three-game road stretch doesn't make matters much easier. The Bengals were 3-5 on the road last season.