Bengal Bites: 17 Chances To Dream Big About The 2021 Bengals

A fast start out of the gate could be everything to this up-and-coming group.

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The Bengals get another chance at the 49ers in 2021 thanks to the 17-game schedule.

Every week, Mike Petraglia details his observations and analysis about the Bengals, their inner workings and how it relates to their competition in the AFC North. Trags has covered 12 Super Bowls, including all 10 appearances by the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick. Trags is a working member of the Pro Football Writers of America and begins his 29th year covering the NFL in 2021.

Last week, we looked back on 2020 and told you what lessons could be taken from each game and applied to the 2021 Bengals.

This week, we’re going to look at every game on the schedule, what the Bengals can expect and what the fans should expect – if Joe Burrow remains upright and healthy.

Getting out of the gate cleanly and quickly is going to be nearly EVERYTHING to the 2021 Bengals.

  • Week 1: Vikings vs. Bengals, Sept. 12 at Paul Brown Stadium:
  • It’s desperation time for both of these head coaches right out of the gate. Desperation might be a tad much (especially in Mike Zimmer’s case) but, in a season-opener that features two coaches entering 2021 on the hot seat, the game between Zimmer’s Minnesota team and Zac Taylor’s Bengals, the winner will have a solid feeling out of the gate. The loser will immediately have to fend off doubt, internal and external. The Vikings bring Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook to the battle. Both are capable of hitting big plays and the Bengals defense will have to prove they’ve improved in stopping big plays and getting off the field on third down. Will Taylor unleash all of the weapons in his “Whoever’s Open” offense right away?

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 2: Bengals vs. Bears, Sept. 19 at Soldier Field:
  • The most notable aspect of this game is that it serves as Taylor’s first road test of 2021. The road Bengals have not been good over Taylor’s first two seasons. They’ve won exactly once in 16 tries, going 1-14-1. More to the point, the Bengals have been exposed in the last two seasons as a team that can’t close out away from Paul Brown Stadium, starting with Taylor’s first game as head coach in 2019, when they couldn’t hold a 17-14 lead heading into the fourth, losing 21-20 at Seattle. Right out of the chute they get either a rematch with their former QB in Andy Dalton or a look at first-round pick Justin Fields out of Ohio State. Either way, should be a great storyline going into this one. The Bears defense is stout as always, led by LB Khalil Mack. Still, this is a winnable game on the road and a chance for the Bengals to prove they’ve learned how to handle things away from PBS.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 3: Bengals vs. Steelers, Sept. 26 at Heinz Field:
  • The Bengals need to find a way to do what their predecessors of 2005, 2009 and 2015 accomplished – beat the Steelers on the road. All three of those teams won the AFC North. The Bengals only other wins in Pittsburgh over the last 16 seasons came in 2006 (missed playoffs) and 2012 (Wild Card). The Bengals were close last year in Pittsburgh when it was 12-7 in the second quarter but going 0-for-13 on third down sealed their fate. They were blown out in the second half. How motivated will the Steelers be to avenge their 27-17 loss last December before a national TV audience in Cincinnati on Monday night? Will JuJu Smith-Schuster offer more TikTok fodder for Vonn Bell? Almost certainly not. The typically proud and confident Steelers figure to keep their mouths shut before this one. The Bengals will have an early chance in 2021 to prove their new stripes are quite becoming. The Steelers defense is transition. This is a chance for Joe Burrow to light up the skies in Pittsburgh in late September, when the weather is pleasant in Western PA. Here’s thinking he does.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 4: Jaguars vs. Bengals, Sept. 30 at Paul Brown Stadium:
  • There will be a lot swirling around the Bengals in this one. It’ll be Urban Meyer bringing his first overall pick Trevor Lawrence to PBS on national television against a Joe Burrow-led team that is intent on showing it’s ready to take the next step toward relevance. It will also be an emotional night as the inaugural class of the Bengals Ring of Honor is unveiled at halftime. Paul Brown and Anthony Munoz, the only members of the organization enshrined in Canton will lead the class.

    If the Bengals keep their focus on the task at hand, they should have enough talent on defense to contain Lawrence on a short week. Burrow and the Bengals put up 30 points against the Browns last season in their lone Thursday night appearance in Cleveland. The Bengals put up a solid showing against the Jags last season in their first win of 2020. Yes, the Jags didn’t have Meyer or Lawrence, but the Bengals’ roster is also much improved and much deeper on both sides of the ball. This needs to be a win. And it will be.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 5: Packers vs. Bengals, Oct. 10 at Paul Brown Stadium:
  • Will it be Aaron Rodgers or Jordan Love running the Pack offense? It’s the biggest question at this writing, and the single biggest factor as to whether this is an incredibly difficult test for the revamped Bengals D or merely another game against another NFL quarterback in his first season calling signals. The Bengals did beat Aaron Rodgers in the most improbable comeback in Paul Brown Stadium history in 2013. That year, Rodgers and the Pack were blowing out the Bengals, 30-14, with five minutes left in the third. Dalton and the Bengals scored 20 points in the final 20 minutes to stun the Pack, 34-30. The Packers allowed just 297 yards per game last year and made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, leading the NFL in interception rate, picking of 4.76 percent of all passes and sacking the quarterback 7.94 percent of passes attempted. A lot of those numbers come from complementary football courtesy the efficiency of Rodgers. But still, Burrow beware. Balance will be of utmost importance. So will play-action, as Tom Brady showed in the NFC Championship.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 6: Bengals vs. Lions, Oct. 17 at Ford Field:
  • Another upstart NFC North team with a point to prove. Still, first-year coach in Dan Campbell takes over the reins in Detroit with a new quarterback in Jared Goff, acquired from the Rams in the offseason for Matthew Stafford. The biggest storyline in this game from the point of view of Bengals fans is who has the bigger impact – Detroit’s franchise offensive tackle in Penei Sewell or Cincinnati’s downfield threat Ja’Marr Chase? The Bengals had their choice between the two and went with the receiver who, on paper, rounds out one of the best young trio of receivers in football. If there’s one group that will be motivated in this game, it’ll be Cincy’s O-Line. They’ll be inspired to keep Burrow from running for his life the entire game and to prove the Bengals were right to wait until the later rounds to address the offensive line. Bengals are the better team and should win this one on the road.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 7: Bengals vs. Ravens, Oct. 24 at M&T Bank Stadium:
  • The Ravens are still the Ravens, having replaced Pittsburgh as the perennial bully atop the AFC North. If the Bengals are successful in getting off to the start they think they’re capable of, then the Ravens will be on the lookout and out to prove a point and protect their home turf. The Bengals will have to do something in this game they haven’t shown during the Taylor era, contain Lamar Jackson. The Bengals figure to be more competitive than the 65-6 collective thrashing the Ravens put on them in 2020 but this is a Super Bowl-caliber roster that only got better and deeper in the offseason. The Bengals need to play a near-perfect game and even then, it probably isn’t enough on the road.

    Expectation: Bengals LOSE.

  • Week 8: Bengals vs. Jets, Oct. 31 at MetLife Stadium:
  • New coach, new quarterback and a new attitude for Gang Green. Robert Saleh will re-energize everything Jets in New York. Some have questioned the wisdom of going with big-armed rookie Zach Wilson out of BYU. But they were spinning their wheels with Sam Darnold. The Bengals and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo should be able to throw disguised looks at the rookie QB, if he is indeed the quarterback at this point of the season. The Jets are in full re-build and this is one of those games, whether or not you’re on Game 3 of a three-game road trip, you need to win. The Bengals and Burrow should be very familiar with the rusher off his left side in Carl Lawson, a very popular player in Cincy. The Jets have some playmakers on D, mostly in their front seven. DT Quinnen Williams is a former first-round pick in 2019. Sheldon Rankins is a stud in the middle of the defensive line and former Raven ILB CJ Mosley anchors the linebackers. No looking ahead to the Brownies in Week 9. If they succeed in that, they win this one.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 9: Browns vs. Bengals, Nov. 7 at Paul Brown Stadium:
  • Their final game before the bye is a doozy and has the potential of setting the Bengals up for big things in the second half. They go up against the team that arguably had the best offseason of any team in the NFL. By Week 9, we’ll have a very good sense of where Kevin Stefanski’s Browns stand as a viable Super Bowl contender.

    No Browns team has had these kinds of expectations since the 1995 club coached by Bill Belichick was robbed of its valor and dignity by the late Art Modell, who announced he was moving the team to Baltimore starting with the 1996 NFL season and inspiring a gripping NFL Films documentary. Before that, the 1986 and ’87 Browns also had Super Bowl aspirations with Bernie Kosar. These Browns have Baker Mayfield, who chewed up Lou Anarumo’s defense twice in 2020 and the Bengals responded by trying to make their defense more agile and nimble on the edges and deeper in the backend. The Ravens put up 65 points last season. The Browns and Mayfield were even better, clawing the Bengals for 72 points. Mayfield, even without Odell Beckham Jr. who injured his left knee early in the game, lit up the Bengals for 20 fourth-quarter points last November in the 37-34 win. Bengals would love a win here, but the Browns likely prove too much to handle. The way the Bengals play will mean as much as the result, which is to say if they hang with a Super Bowl-caliber team, they will be more than motivated in the second half. They don’t want to sit on a blowout loss for a week.

    Expectation: Bengals LOSE.

    Week 10: BYE

  • Week 11: Bengals vs. Raiders, Nov. 21 at Allegiant Stadium:
  • This might be one of the more difficult games to predict on the schedule. Will the Raiders be right in the mix for a wild card with the Broncos in the AFC West or beginning to wonder what their future is (or isn’t) with Derek Carr at quarterback. Could Marcus Mariota figure in Jon Gruden’s plans? Will running back Josh Jacobs be tearing up defenses? The Bengals could enter this game with the potential of doing to the Raiders what the Raiders did to opponents during the Al Davis era, attacking through the air vertically. Nothing would make Joe Burrow happier (except winning of course). But to do that, the Bengals will have to contain another front capable of doing big-time damage, led by edges Clelin Ferrell and Yannick Ngakoue. The Raiders gave up 125.8 yards/game on the ground in 2020. This could be another game Joe Mixon plays a big role. The Bengals have been blown out in the game coming out of the bye in the Zac Taylor era, losing 49-13 at home to Baltimore in 2019 and 36-10 in Pittsburgh last year. If the Bengals are to make noise going into a tough stretch, that certainly needs to change and this again needs to be a win.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 12: Steelers vs. Bengals, Nov. 28 at Paul Brown Stadium:
  • If the Bengals and Steelers are heading in opposite directions, which the Bengals think is a possibility for the positive, then this needs to be a game where the Bengals throw down the stake in the turf and declare they’ve arrived. Last year was great as a one-off featuring Ryan Finley’s game he can tell generations to come in his family. But this game should mean a lot more to Joe Burrow in terms of relevance to setting a tone for what’s ahead in his career. This is the game that Burrow comes out and dictates everything from start to finish against a re-building Steeler team. If the Bengals have matured, they defend their house against a division team. For the first time in years, and certainly since the Carson Palmer era, they have the superior quarterback. In Ben Roethlisberger’s early years, a case could be made they won when Ben didn’t turn the ball over and turned things over to the defense. But now, the Bengals have more playmakers and the better, younger QB.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 13: Chargers vs. Bengals, Dec. 5 at Paul Brown Stadium:
  • Second of a three-game homestand. This is a rematch of the 2020 opener at PBS and should heavily favor the Bengals. Yep, the Chargers have a QB they’re pretty hyped up about – and rightfully so – in Justin Herbert. But the Bengals have weaponry around Burrow that Herbert doesn’t quite enjoy. Keenan Allen is THE weapon for Herbert but Mike Williams is coming into his own in his fourth year out of Clemson. Tight end Jared Cook is a trusty veteran free agent and cap casualty from New Orleans. On defense, it starts with keeping all eyes on Joey Bosa. Bengals just missed going to overtime when Randy Bullock’s right calf gave way on his chip shot at the end of regulation last year. Joe Mixon’s fumble on the Bengals next-to-last possession didn’t help either. This year, the story should be different.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 14: 49ers vs. Bengals, Dec. 12 at Paul Brown Stadium:
  • This is a fascinating match-up to me on a number of levels. In the first season of the 17-game schedule, the Bengals get their “bonus” game at home against an NFC West team, and it’s the NFC team the Bengals have the most history with – by far. It all started in Jan. 1976, when Paul Brown passed over Bill Walsh in favor of another Bill as his head coaching replacement. Tiger Johnson got the gig and Walsh went onto Stanford University before heading up north from Palo Alto to take over the woebegone 49ers in 1979. It was Dec. 6, 1981, when Walsh beat the Bengals at Riverfront, 21-3, in the first of many meetings. Then in Super Bowl XVI, Walsh again got the best of Forrest Gregg, 26-21, in Pontiac. Walsh’s 15-win 49ers wiped out a 17-7 hole in 1984 in San Francisco to beat Sam Wyche. In 1987, James Brooks couldn’t wipe out the final two seconds at the end in Week 2 as Joe Montana found Jerry Rice in the back of the end zone as time expired, 26-21.

    In 1988, the Bengals were 34 seconds from erasing all of the negative karma in Super Bowl XXIII. Then John Taylor split the Bengals secondary on a post. 20-16, in Bill Walsh’s final game of a career that earned him a spot in Canton. In 1990, the 49ers tied the game at then and won in OT at Riverfront, 20-17. In 1996, the hapless Bengals led 21-0 and blew the game in the second half, 28-21. The Bengals didn’t stop the 9-game misery until a 44-30 win in the next-to-last game the Bengals ever played at Riverfront. The Bengals had actually won three-of-five before Zac Taylor’s first home game as Bengals head coach. The Bengals could not have looked more ill-prepared or overmatched. They were annihilated, 41-17, on a steamy day at PBS on Sept. 15, 2019, sadly an indicator of what was to come in Cincinnati’s second-ever two-win season. Are the 49ers with Jimmy Garoppolo the team that destroyed the Bengals that day and came within six minutes of their sixth Super Bowl win against the Chiefs. Or have they regressed in the ultra-competitive NFC West. Bengals at home find a way.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 15: Bengals vs. Broncos, Dec. 19 at Empower Field at Mile High
  • The Bengals have a mixed history in Denver. Most notoriously, they lost the penultimate game of 2006 in the snow on Christmas Eve when Brad St. Louis’s snap for the PAT that would’ve sent the game to OT was mishandled. A win would’ve clinched the playoffs. Instead, the Bengals lost in overtime at home the next weekend to a Steelers team that was saying farewell to Bill Cowher. Most recently, there was 2015. With Andy Dalton out with a broken thumb, back up AJ McCarron directed the Bengals to a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Denver came back with the next 17 points only to have Mike Nugent tie the game with a 52-yarder with just over six minutes left. Denver managed only a field goal in overtime. The Bengals had a chance to win a game that would’ve likely led to home field advantage throughout and a first-round bye but McCarron fumbled a snap when he wasn’t ready, Denver recovered and Cincinnati would play the Steelers in a fatefully devastating first-round playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals had lost 10 straight in Denver dating to 1975 before winning, 20-17, in 2017. Like with San Francisco, history is part of the dynamic in this series. The Bengals have enough on defense to contain Drew Lock but do they have the bodies to contain Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton on the outside and tight end Noah Fant?

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 16: Ravens vs. Bengals, Dec. 26 at Paul Brown Stadium
  • The Bengals will have to break through against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens at some point. This might be the spot. Late in the season, and at home, the Bengals find a way to control possession, which is the best way to keep Jackson from doing damage. Joe Mixon and the Bengals offensive line will need to be firing on all cylinders at this point. The Bengals have been trounced 87-16 in their last two home games against Baltimore. They’ve lost three of their last four at home to the Ravens. Before that, they had won their last five home meetings with Baltimore. The other key to beating the Ravens? Create turnovers, and lots of them. When the Bengals beat the Ravens in that memorable Thursday night game in 2018, Shawn Williams stripped Joe Flacco from behind and Dre Kirkpatrick recovered in a 34-23 win.

    Expectation: Bengals WIN.

  • Week 17: Chiefs vs. Bengals, Jan. 2 at Paul Brown Stadium
  • Assuming the Chiefs are fighting it out with the likes of the Browns, Ravens, Bills and Patriots for home field advantage, they’re going to come into PBS with lots and lots to play for. Patrick Mahomes, assuming he’s healthy and playing, is the type of quarterback that gives any team fits. Oh right, they have Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman on the outside and tight end Travis Kelce. To have a chance, the secondary has to drop back and keep everything in front of them, not allowing the deep ball. This is how the Patriots played against the Chiefs in the 2018 AFC title game at Arrowhead.

    It’s really the only chance. Force Mahomes to constantly take what’s in front of him and make him string 12-14 plays together, which he’s totally equipped to handle. If you force Mahomes to take some time off the clock AND you take care of the ball AND you extend drives with key third down conversions, you have a chance. Margin of error is next-to-zero against a roster (especially offensive line) that’s been re-stocked for a third straight Super Bowl run and a fourth straight AFC championship game appearance.

    Expectation: Bengals LOSE.

  • Week 18: Bengals vs. Browns, Jan. 9 at FirstEnergy Stadium
  • The Browns figure to have too much to play for here. Like the Chiefs the week before, the Browns should be playing for playoff positioning and home field. All things being equal and healthy, the Browns should be able to take care of business and sweep the Bengals for a second straight season, something they haven’t accomplished since winning the season series three straight years from 1993-95. Yes, the Bengals could very well be playing for their playoff lives in this one also but the Browns, again, have the much deeper and more proven roster. Will be interesting to see how Burrow handles a crowd like this on Lake Erie in the heart of winter.

    Expectation: Bengals LOSE.

    That would give the Bengals a 13-4 mark.

    3 most uncertain home wins: Green Bay, Baltimore, San Francisco
    3 most uncertain road wins: Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver

    Win two of three in each category and that’s still 11-6 and likely good enough for the postseason, which should be the first goal of this team in 2021.

    Again, whether it’s 13-4, 12-5 or 11-6, a really good season hinges primarily on getting off to a good start and staying healthy. The other incredibly large factor in this optimistic take is the coaching staff and players taking that next level step on the road. This is where the optimism might truly be misplaced. But still, this is a much-improved roster, with a quarterback with great attitude, leadership and youth on his side. Lots of variables to count on with a team with a lot to prove. Zac Taylor is in much the same position as Sam Wyche in 1988. The time is now, and if the Bengals are who they hope they are, then dream big.