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The NFL Gifted the Bengals an Easy, Early-Season Schedule (Minus the Chiefs). They Must Take Advantage.

The Bengals’ official 2024 schedule was released last night, and it appears the Bengals have been gifted an opportunity for the ages.  The Zac Taylor/Joe Burrow Era has been the most prosperous and enjoyable in all of Bengals' history, but there’s been a glaring flaw.  Legendary Greek warrior Achilles was known to have only one weakness, and likewise, so do the Bengals – namely slow, uninspired starts to their season.

Granted, slow starts haven’t always killed the Bengals like Achilles’...uh, Achilles’ heel did, but it did cost them a playoff spot last year, and two years ago it potentially cost them another Super Bowl appearance.  Teams that get off to a 2 - 0 start in the NFL reach the playoffs 63.8% of the time, while teams that stumble out of the gate with a 0 - 2 record miss the playoffs 58.2% of the time.  Two years ago, the Bengals managed to beat the odds – last year, even with Jake Browning doing a reasonable Joe Burrow impression in emergency relief, they couldn’t.

Obviously, getting off to a good start is a big deal.  But in 2024, it will be more important for the Bengals than ever.  Take a look at the first four games of the Bengals schedule this year:

Week One (Sunday, September 8) – New England Patriots @ Cincinnati Bengals

Week Two (Sunday, September 15) – Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs

Week Three (Monday, September 23) – Washington Commanders @ Cincinnati Bengals

Week Four (Sunday, September 29) – Cincinnati Bengals @ Carolina Panthers

That’s a 3 - 1 start, minimum.  It has to be.  There is no excuse.  Anything less is a failure.

Take another look at those teams: yes, the Chiefs loom large, but recognize anything about the other three?  Did you realize those were the three worst teams in the NFL last year?  In 2023, the Patriots, Commanders, and Panthers combined for a whopping ten whole wins.  The Bengals had nine with Burrow missing for half the year.

It’s a massive opportunity.  And a welcome change of pace from the recent, division-heavy season-openings in 2022 and 2023.  Even if the Bengals aren’t quite hitting their peak by Week Four, they should be rounding into form and – crucially – they shouldn’t have to be a juggernaut to beat the likes of the Commanders.

The fact that a loss in any of the first four games won’t count against them in the division is a bonus too.  With their first two games last year coming against the Browns and the Ravens, those two losses put the Bengals way behind the eight-ball, so to speak.  They rebounded admirably, but the loss of Burrow combined with their intensely arduous path back to contention ultimately doomed their chances.  This year, though, they have a bit of a warm-up before getting to the games that really matter.

The one outlier in the Bengals first four games is, of course, Kansas City.  The defending champs are no pushover – even if their offseason has been marked with some departures and player controversy (not to mention a looming battle between the city of Kansas City and the Chiefs’ owners over future stadium funding).  Besides, this game is being played at the stadium very-briefly known as “Burrowhead.”  The Bengals will have to be sharp to steal this one.

Still, better to lose to the Chiefs in Week Two than in Week Seventeen or in the AFC Championship, right?  And with the other three games in their first four looking eminently winnable, they may be able to use the start of the regular season as an extended preseason and rack up a few Ws while they’re at it.  Taylor and the Bengals can finally have their cake and eat it too.

With a schedule this favorable early on, it’s more important than ever that the Bengals come out of the gates with intensity.  They won’t have to be perfect to beat the Pats, Commanders, or Panthers, but they need those wins nonetheless.  The schedule toughens from there, with their division slate and a trip to Dallas looming afterward, but it’s nothing like the gauntlet the Bengals faced last year.  The Bengals are in great position to jump ahead of their peers in the AFC early, and then stay there.

But they must get off to a good start.  This advantage is too good to spoil.  Fortunately, the schedule has aligned to allow the Bengals to do just that.  The Bengals haven’t gotten off to the best starts in the Taylor/Burrow era, but they’ve been blessed by the football gods with an opportunity to put that all behind them.  It’s the break they needed after a brutal 2023, and it could give the Bengals a serious early edge in an extremely competitive AFC.

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