It's hard to see the Cincinnati Bengals making it to 10 wins this year. But with a timely bye, a veteran roster and some favorable late-season matchups, they can get double-digit wins even after playing .500 ball (going 5-5) heading into Thanksgiving. Despite road prime-time games in Weeks 15 and 16 (the Bengals are 1-12 on the road at night since 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information) they can go 5-1 to close out the year, and reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 13, at Oakland, 4:35 p.m.
Nope, it isn't the sexy home Monday night opener many in the Queen City had hoped for with the Cincinnati Reds leaving town that Sunday, but this is an important game to start off the year, nonetheless. The Bengals, making their first trip to Oakland since 2009 -- the last year they started a season at home -- should be able to win. After all, the Raiders had just three wins last year and will be in the first game of a new coaching staff. Bengals 35, Raiders 10. Record 1-0.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 20, San Diego, 1 p.m.
The Bengals' home opener will be a bit of a revenge game. It's their first time facing the Chargers since dropping a 2013 wild-card round playoff game to San Diego at Paul Brown Stadium. Andy Dalton, Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green each played key roles in the loss, and ought to be desperate to prove to their home crowd that they are far better than they were that day. Bengals 23, Chargers 17. Record 2-0.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 27, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Historically, games at Baltimore haven't been kind to Marvin Lewis' Bengals. They are 5-7 all time under Lewis at M&T Bank Stadium, and had a string of four straight losses there from 2010-13. Last year's 23-16 win in the opener at Baltimore halted that troubling trend. Although the Bengals are probably the more talented team, they won't pass their first true test of the season. Ravens 21, Bengals 16. Record 2-1.
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 4, Kansas City, 1 p.m.
Back home and desperate to get back in the "W" column, the Bengals will craft an adequate game plan to stop the Chiefs. This could be an important game from a run defense standpoint, as the 2014 sixth-ranked rushing offense (Cincinnati) squares off with last season's 10th-ranked rushing unit (Kansas City). As for the Bengals, they'll be charged with containing the speedy Jeremy Maclin in the passing game, and corralling rushers Knile Davis and Jamaal Charles. Bengals 24, Chiefs 21. Record 3-1.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 11, Seattle, 1 p.m.
The Bengals will be hosting consecutive games for the first time and have a chance to really leave an early-season mark. But the defending NFC champs, led by the mobile Russell Wilson and the bruising Marshawn Lynch, will prove too much. The Bengals drop what figures to be a physical game. Seahawks 31, Bengals 24. Record 3-2.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 18, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Cincinnati's last two games against Buffalo have been decided by three points, and it's hard seeing this one going any differently considering the Bills upgraded an already good defense in the offseason. It will be interesting to see what new Bills head coach Rex Ryan, a friend to Lewis and defensive savant, does at quarterback where the leash is shortening on EJ Manuel. It may not take a Mike Nugent overtime field goal to decide this one, but it'll still be close. Bengals 20, Bills 17. Record 4-2.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Nov. 1, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
In their second division game, the Bengals travel to the Steel City for a game that could be flexed into prime time depending upon where both teams are record-wise at this point of the year. Games at Heinz Field haven't gone well for Cincinnati, which has lost four of its past five there. Although the losses of Steelers defenders Troy Polamalu, Jason Worilds and Ike Taylor to retirement should help the Bengals, they still will have problems solving Bengal slayer Antonio Brown, the receiver/returner that has for so long been a thorn in their proverbial side. Steelers 24, Bengals 16. Record 4-3.
Week 9: Thursday, Nov. 5, Cleveland, 8:25 p.m.
Recognize this week? Exactly 364 days after the Bengals had a performance reminiscent of their days as the Bungles, they will host the Browns once again for an early-November Thursday night game. It's their first scheduled prime-time game, and as a result, the nerves will show. Don't be surprised if Dalton plays better than his 2.0 passer rating in last year's 24-3 Thursday night loss to Cleveland, but don't be surprised if he has a typically frustrating big-game performance, either. Browns 17, Bengals 7. Record 4-4.
Week 10: Monday, Nov. 16, Houston, 8:30 p.m.
Entering this season, the Bengals are 3-11 in prime-time games since 2008. With 11 days to get refocused after facing the Browns, they will rally for a second straight win over the Texans, who they beat in Houston last November. Look for Green to play well, building off the career-high 12 catches he had in last year's meeting. Bengals 31, Texans 21. Record 5-4.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 22, at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Similar to the game against the Seahawks early in the season, this could be one of the pivot points upon which the Bengals' season hinges. A victory here could be the difference between a nine-win year or a 10-win one. In what should be Carson Palmer's second career game against the team that drafted him first overall in 2003, the Bengals will come out a loser. That's primarily because this game is on the road. Cardinals 27, Bengals 24. Record 5-5.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 29, St. Louis, 1 p.m.
And now for another pivot point. If the Bengals are at .500 or slightly worse at this point in the year, this game could make or break their season. Another loss, and their road to a fifth straight postseason game becomes tremendously more difficult. A win, and they could change their post-Thanksgiving momentum, as they did two years ago when they went 4-1 to close out the year. The final stretch has been kind to the Bengals in recent years. Since 2011, in regular-season games played Nov. 29 or later, the Bengals are 13-7. Bengals 31, Rams 17. Record 6-5.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 6, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Cincinnati returns to division play as they face a Browns team that lately has started fading by this point in the season. Even if Cleveland wins the Thursday night game in November, don't be surprised if the Bengals take the end-of-year grudge match. Last year, they blanked the Browns, 30-0, following the November beatdown at home. Bengals 27, Browns 17. Record 7-5.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 13, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Although the Bengals were swept in 2014 by the Steelers, it won't happen in 2015. The teams will split the season series with the home team winning, in part because by this point in the year, the Bengals' rushing offense ought to be rolling. With the weather potentially a factor, this could be the Le'Veon Bell versus Jeremy Hill Show. Hill's offensive line will give him just a few more holes, though. Bengals 17, Steelers 14. Record 8-5.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 20, at San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
As the season starts winding down, the Bengals' playoff push continues. Expect the 49ers to still have their growing pains as they continue getting acclimated to new coach Jim Tomsula, not to mention life after linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. The fact the Bengals have to travel for this one adds a challenge, but they ought to sweep their Bay Area matchups. Bengals 21, 49ers 16. Record 9-5.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 28, at Denver, 8:30 p.m.
The Bengals could, in theory, stay on the road between these games with back-to-back prime-time games in the two westernmost time zones. It's doubtful, though, since Christmas will be in between the games. Peyton Manning certainly hasn't forgotten the two interceptions he gift-wrapped to Dre Kirkpatrick in the closing minutes of last year's Bengals Monday night win over the Broncos. Manning will be the difference-maker in this one. Broncos 34, Bengals 24. Record 9-6.
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 3, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
It all comes down to this. Just like last year, an AFC North title will be on the line in the Bengals' finale, and possibly a playoff berth. A 9-7 mark might not be enough to reach the playoffs in such a tough conference. Cincinnati is helped by the fact this game is at home, and that it will be facing a mostly one-dimensional, run-focused Ravens offense. Bengals 20, Ravens 13. Record 10-6.