Burrow’s return, defensive additions make Cincy a team to watch this season
By Joe Laurich
For the second year in a row, the Bengals are relevant. After taking Joe Burrow with the first overall pick last year, the rookie showed some flashes of greatness before going down with a torn ACL. With Burrow back and healthy, the Bengals are looking to build off last year’s 4-11-1 finish and really make some noise in a crowded AFC North.
Alongside Burrow’s return, Cincy added Burrow’s favorite receiver from his days at Louisiana State University with the speedy Ja’Marr Chase and offensive tackle Riley Reiff to improve the offense.
Defensively, the Bengals improved with the additions of defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie.
With expected progress from second-year receiver Tee Higgins along with Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon back in the fold, the Bengals have the look of an above-average team on both sides of the ball.
Still, one key issue remains: the offensive line. Reiff is assuredly an upgrade over Bobby Hart, and Jonah Williams looks like a pretty solid option at left tackle, but the interior of the offensive line is a bit questionable.
The Bengals’ problem this year isn’t so much who they have, but who their opponents have. They play two games each against the Steelers, Ravens and Browns, who all feature multiple elite pass-rushers and playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
The Bengals also have matchups against the Vikings, Bears, Packers, 49ers, Broncos and Chiefs, who all have extremely talented front sevens.
I think the Bengals’ success as a whole will mostly be determined by how they start the season. They open the year with two difficult but winnable games against the Vikings and Bears. The Bengals need to win one of those games if they expect to push for a playoff spot this year.
If they’re 2-0 with momentum when they head to Pittsburgh in Week Three, they could possibly (although still not probably) steal a game from a Steelers team that may be trying to gel its rebuilt offense.
By the Bengals’ Week 10 bye, they need to be at least 5-4 to keep their playoff hopes alive. It’s realistic to expect losses to Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Baltimore and Cleveland in that span, but the Bengals would have to take care of business against Minnesota, Chicago, Jacksonville, Detroit and the Jets.
If the Bengals manage to get to 5-4 at the bye, the Bengals have little margin for error in the second half, when they play the Steelers, Ravens and Browns again while mixing in games against the Chiefs, Broncos, Raiders, Chargers and 49ers.
There are enough winnable games in the back half of that schedule for Bengals fans to realistically expect nine wins.
A 9-8 season probably wouldn’t be enough for the playoffs, but a winning season would be a boost heading into the offseason and the 2022 season, when the Bengals might be talented enough to once again legitimately compete for the AFC North crown.
It’s possible they could get a few upset wins and finish with 10 or more, but I think nine is a more realistic number.
However, the start of the season, specifically the first two weeks against the Vikings and Bears, should set the tone for the rest of the Bengals’ season.
If they drop those first two games, it’ll be tougher for them to make any noise this year.
A 2-0 or even a 1-1 start for the Bengals could provide some much-needed hope throughout Cincinnati and in the halls of Paul Brown Stadium.