On paper and in the national hype machine the Bengals are an unbeatable 13-3.
But they play in the AFC North, an 8-8 rock that grinds hype into half-truths. It is the proud heir to the Black-and-Blue Division, but The Purple-and-Orange, or the Yellow-and-Brown don't quite get it. It could be simply known as The Black Hole because the three division winners in the past four seasons (Bengals, Ravens, Steelers) all wear black.
So the Bengals are somewhere between paper and rock.
Try 11-5 in a division where the powers-that-be haven't slipped out of it just yet. They may during the impending tractor pull, but the Steelers still have Big Ben on offense and Charles Richard LeBeau on defense. The Ravens still have a quarterback that hasn't lost to Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer since 2010, not to mention a brand new cast of proven pass rushers (Elvis Dumervil, Chis Canty, Marcus Spears) to team with a former Defensive Player of the Year in Terrell Suggs.
And the Browns are going to be better than they have been in years with the simple addition of two superb tacticians for coordinators in old friend Ray Horton (the Bengals second-round pick 30 years ago) on defense and Norv Turner on offense.
But for the first time since the '09 AFC North sweep, the Bengals are primed to win five division games in a true passing of the torch.
Yet it is going to be how the Bengals perform in their first three Paul Brown Stadium games that will gauge how far this club has come against three of the flagship franchises since the turn of the century.
In the Steelers (Sept. 16), the Packers (Sept. 22) and the Patriots (Oct. 6), the Bengals duel quarterbacks who have won a total of six Super Bowls and been to the playoffs a combined 20 times
Here's how the Bengals get to 11-5:
SEPT. 8 at Chicago
The Bengals take on a new coaching staff and head coach Marvin Lewis is 3-2 in openers he's gone against teams with new staffs, 3-1 on the road. The Bengals have a special teams coordinator in his 11th year, a defensive coordinator in his sixth year, and an offensive coordinator in his third. Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker had the same job in Jacksonville the past two seasons, when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw for four touchdowns in two victories.
MATCHUP TO WATCH:The Bears are starting their first-rounder at right guard, Oregon's Kyle Long, and fifth-rounder at right tackle, Louisiana Tech's Jordan Mills. The Bengals just gave two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap nearly $100 million extension money for games like this. Before Chicago retooled its line, only the Cardinals have more sacks than the Bears in the last three seasons.
SEPT. 16 vs. STEELERS
The Steelers won't be as bad as some say, but if teams catch their developing offensive line early, they can really cause Roethlisberger problems. With a packed PBS lit up for its season opener on ESPN Monday night, it's not hard to see the Bengals defensive line matching last year's four-sack game with seven pressures.
These first two games of any 16-game season are, of course, huge, and in both cases the D-line has to earn its money quickly in two matchups it has to win against young, revamped fronts.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Steelers and their defensive conscience, 2008 Player of the Year James Harrison, parted ways and this is his first chance against them. Harrison may be playing a new position with a new cast, but he's also playing with proven pass rushers that are going to allow him to blitz and go one-on-one on passing downs. At times that could leave him matched up with any number of running backs the Steelers have to sort through because of injury.
SEPT. 22 vs. GREEN BAY
The Packers were also busy in the contract department, locking up their franchise quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and defensive quarterback, Clay Matthews. The Pack is a more than formidable foe with the magician-like Rodgers working on a run of four straight playoff berths with a nice a trio of receivers in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones.
With a short week after two emotional games, the Bengals have a tough time getting back up for a second time in six days.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Bengals have to figure out how to replace their best cover linebacker, Emmanuel Lamur, because Packers tight end Jermichael Finley and his 17 career TDs are waiting.
SEPT. 29 at Cleveland
Ten years and a day to his first win as head coach in the same building, Lewis goes against a new Browns head coach for the fourth time. In the three previous seasons (2005, 2009, 2011), the Bengals swept the series.
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden turns 30 on Oct. 14. The Bengals won't have a regular on offense touch the ball older than 28, unless backup tight end and former Brown Alex Smith (31) does.
The Browns made six waiver claims after cutdown day while the only move the Bengals did was replace wide receiver Andrew Hawkins on the roster after sending him to injured reserve recall.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Turner vs. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Two bright minds and they've had some doozies the past four years when Turner was the head coach of the Chargers. Turner got Zimmer in '09 on a last-minute drive for a winning field goal, but the Bengals held the Chargers without a TD last year and in 2010 held them to one TD until with less than two minutes left in a 34-20 win.
OCT. 6 vs. NEW ENGLAND
As big as it gets as the young-gun Bengals challenge the AFC hierarchy. The Bengals are 0-4 against Tom Brady, so if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
For years the Patriots have been trying to get up to competent in the secondary and finally the Bengals have enough weapons to spread them out and make them play one-on-one instead of in the safety of head coach Bill Belichick's schemes.
It looks like the Pats are going to try and play some smashmouth offense in order to take the heat off Brady adjusting to a new generation of receivers, but that's a tough script to follow on the road vs. Zimmer's guys.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bengals two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham is pushing himself to duplicate the numbers of his fellow '10 draftmates since he was the first one drafted. Never mind that Gresham is asked to do different things than "The Gronk," but while Gresham is coming off his best preseason, Rob Gronkowski is struggling with injuries.
Since Gronkowski (arm) didn't go on the PUP list, he figures to play against the Bengals and he'll be a prime target. With the Bengals injured at backer, it's assumed offenses are going to attack the middle of the field quickly to get away from the pass rush, so the big tight end that has the biggest game may hold the key in this one.
OCT. 13 at Buffalo
The Bengals haven't won up there since 1985, the year their oldest starting offensive skill player (running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis) was born. That's a drought that should end, considering the new Bills franchise quarterback is a rookie, E.J. Manuel, born in 1990. Which doesn't make him much older than Buffalo's 13-year playoff drought, longest in the NFL. Buffalo's rebuilding won't be able to overcome the past three years, when the Bills had three of the franchise's five worst defenses.
Plus, Lewis is 13-10 vs. rookie QBs.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bills C Eric Wood vs. Bengals DT Geno Atkins. The Bengals coveted the Cincinnati-bred Wood (Elder High School) when he came out of Louisville and obviously so do the Bills. They picked him in the first round and just gave him a four-year, $25.4 million extension. It's not Atkins's $55 million, but Wood has emerged as a highly-regarded team leader in Buffalo and, like Atkins, is at the heart of what his team does.
OCT. 20 at Detroit
Another bump in the road on the road. A tough away game against a relentless pass rush paired with a dangerous offense. Every team always seems to have a couple of these no matter whether it is contending or not. Win some they shouldn't and lose some that are supposed to be in the bag.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green vs. his offseason Atlanta workout partner, Lions Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson is coming off one of the most beastly seasons in history with 1,964 yards on 122 catches. How good? Green has gone to two Pro Bowls in two years with a total of 2,407 yards.
OCT. 27 vs. JETS
The big question is if Rex Ryan is still going to be coaching this club for this one and if Lewis's record is going to be 14-10 against rookie quarterbacks going into this game, given that Geno Smith is supposed to the guy. If not now, soon, and certainly by now.
Which is just as well for the Bengals. They're 0-3 vs. Mark Sanchez, including a Wild Card loss.
How different are these two franchises since Cincinnati's utterly brutal 26-10 loss on Thanksgiving Night, 2010, in New Jersey? Since that game the Jets are 16-21, and on their third offensive coordinator and second defensive coordinator, but Ryan is back calling plays after giving it up for a stretch. While the Bengals have gone to the playoffs the last two years, the Jets have gone to the back page of the tabloids.
What is going to hurt the Jets in this game against this Bengals defense is the lack of playmakers on an offense that scored fewer than 18 points and averaged less than 181 yards passing yards per game.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Lewis vs. Ryan. Ryan was Lewis's defensive line coach on the great Baltimore defenses at the turn of the century. Lewis learned midway through his Bengals tenure how drama-filled days sapped his team's energy and attention and has worked hard with club president Mike Brown to find good teammates and eliminate the distractions. But Ryan has done just the opposite in the distraction capital of the world and will pay for it with his job. It should be a big factor in the Bengals winning this game in the cozy confines of PBS.
OCT. 31 at Miami
Trick or Treat on NFL Network Halloween Night. It's a short week, it's on the road, and it's against a defense coordinated by long-time Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle, author of last season's 17-13 stunner at PBS.
Of course, Coyle has never seen this kind of offense in Cincinnati with mismatch nightmares Tyler Eifert at tight end Giovani Bernard at running back.
And the Dolphins don't have a day at the beach because they're on the road at New England while the Bengals are playing the Jets that Sunday.
The Dolphins are faster than they were last year with the signing of fleet Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace and the addition of linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler, and they're banking on second-year QB Ryan Tannehill taking a major step forward after he put up some numbers that weren't as good as Matt Moore's from the year before.
The sked, more than anything, dictates this result.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Wallace vs. Bengals cornerback Leon Hall. These guys have had some battles. Last year Wallace caught just one ball for 13 yards when the Bengals beat Pittsburgh to go the playoffs, and in the game at PBS he caught eight balls but the Bengals neutralized his speed on 52 yards with a long of 12. Yet in 2010 he had a 110-yard game at PBS and then at Heinz had a 33-yard catch.
NOV. 10 at Baltimore
A tough place for the Bengals to play. Make that everybody. Since Lewis became Cincinnati's coach in 2003, the Ravens have the second-best home record in the NFL, five wins behind the Patriots at 63-17. So Lewis's record in his old stomping grounds is pretty good at 4-6, but the Bengals haven't won there since the '09 sweep.
OK, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are gone from this defense, but people are saying it's going to be better because Lewis and Reed were out of gas.
The Wizard of Oz (Newsome) has plucked proven pass rushers up front in Chris Canty, Elvis Dumervil and Marcus Spears. Baltimore's best cover corner Lardarius Webb is back from injury. Free-agent pickup Michael Huff and first-rounder Matt Elam make the Ravens dangerous at safety.
The reports of the demise of the Ravens defense are greatly exaggerated. The pendulum may be swinging in the AFC North, but it's hard not to get nicked.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth vs. Dumervil. We'll see where the Ravens line him up, but the squat Dumervil is the kind of guy that can be a challenge for the 6-7 Whitworth because of leverage. Meanwhile, Whitworth has been able to get a good read on the 6-3 Suggs, Baltimore's one remaining NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
NOV. 17 vs. CLEVELAND
The Bengals haven't lost to the Browns at PBS with their starting quarterback since Lee (Not Terrell) Suggs ran for 180 yards in the 2003 finale. The only home loss since then came in '08, when Carson Palmer was shelved with his elbow injury.
The Browns will be better than they were in September, but their last five drafts won't be and that's where the Bengals have them beat in the trenches as BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard attempt to become the sixth different back to rush for 100 yards against Cleveland since the Browns came back into the NFL in 1999.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu vs. Browns rookie cornerback Leon McFadden. The Browns need to find a corner to play opposite Joe Haden. They took McFadden in the third round and at 5-9, that's a tough matchup against the 6-2 Sanu.
DEC. 1 at San Diego
The Chargers are starting from scratch. New GM. New coach. New tackles.
Poor Philip Rivers.
This one won't be as close as last year, when the Bengals eked out a 20-13 win when the Chargers didn't score a touchdown. Rivers's two top targets are back, but who is going to protect him? Especially against these guys. The Bengals jet to The Coast with a bye week under their belt knowing this same team won out there last year.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bengals LE Carlos Dunlap vs. Chargers rookie RT D.J. Fluker. Fluker is a big man and a terrific run blocker. The Bengals liked him, but as a guard because they feared his lack of quickness in pass protection. Just the kind of guy Dunlap exploits.
DEC. 8 vs. INDIANAPOLIS
Even before Peyton Manning went 7-0 against them, the Bengals found a way to lose at home to Colts quarterbacks from Jeff George to Jack Trudeau to Don Majkowski. Andrew Luck is the real deal, one of those elite quarterbacks that is capable of beating a top five defense like the Bengals at home. By this count, he and Rodgers are the ones that are going to make the Bengals 6-2 at PBS this season.
The Colts, coming off an 11-5 surprise with a mega rookie season by Luck, should be even better with one of his college coaches, Pep Hamilton running the offense. He's devising ways to protect Luck better (he was third-most sacked QB in the league last year) with a lot of double tight end sets and an emphasis in the running game that already got more than 800 yards from rookie Vick Ballard last season.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Colts TEs Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener vs. the Bengals linebackers. The Colts are going the way of the Bengals and are looking for ways to create mismatches with these two guys.
DEC. 15 at Pittsburgh
After last season's 4-1 December, Lewis is hoping he's buried the criticism of flaming out late and the Bengals will have to if they want to win the North. He's 5-5 in his hometown and last season's 13-10 win with four seconds left at Heinz gives this team some legs going in there. It's another prime-time game (NBC) and it will be another one of these all-or-nothing games the Bengals went through last year.
If the Bengals caught the Steelers offensive line early, then they catch a retooled Steelers defense late with its young offensive weapons in high gear. The Steelers have no Harrison on the edge, no Casey Hampton in the middle, no Keenan Lewis at corner, but they're looking to get more out of top picks like end Ziggy Hood and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bengals OC Jay Gruden vs. Steelers DC Dick LeBeau. Sometimes you wonder what would have happened with Carson Palmer if LeBeau as the Bengals head coach in 2001 had hired Bruce Arians as his offensive coordinator after he interviewed him. Gruden looks to have the weapons he needs to keep LeBeau's array of blitzes in check, from a wide receiver-like tight end in Tyler Eifert, to a wide-receiver like running back in Giovani Bernard to a tight end-like wide receiver in the slot in Sanu.
DEC. 22 vs. MINNESOTA
For the first time since the 1990 opener when Bruce Coslet brought the Jets to Riverfront Stadium, the Bengals face a former coordinator as a head coach. Leslie Frazier, Lewis's first defensive coordinator from '03-04 before he was dismissed, has a shot to spoil some things but he won't be able to do it against this defense with his quarterbacks.
Since Lewis took the job in '03, the Bengals (24-24) are one of six AFC teams to have a winning record in December.
The great Adrian Peterson could be sniffing 2,000 rushing yards as this point, but that's not going to be enough against this defense in the cold weather. The Vikings are asking quarterback Christian Ponder to be a caretaker and not to blow games, but he'll have to make a big play against this defense and he'll need first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson to have a big first year. For receivers not A.J. Green, that doesn't usually happen.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Vikings rookie CB Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes is big and fast, the kind of guy that can make a team go man-to-man. But not against Green and these receivers and the Vikings will be looking for the departed Antoine Winfield at some point.
DEC. 29 vs. BALTIMORE
Again. For the third straight year the Ravens finish the season at PBS. Two years ago it didn't matter because everyone lost that the Bengals needed to lose. Last year it didn't mean a thing because both teams were in it.
This year it's going to mean everything. The AFC North title and a home playoff game. Working in the din of madness against a Bengals defensive front that is committed to stopping running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, quarterback Joe Flacco has no place to go with Anquan Boldin in 'Frisco, and Dennis Pitta not healthy and struggles against Zimmer's varying looks. It's happened before here. Flacco threw two picks and had just 195 yards in the Bengals '09 PBS win and in the 2010 PBS game (Cincinnati's last win over Baltimore), he threw four interceptions. In 2011, he threw for just 130 yards, but Rice beat the Bengals on 170 yards rushing and Zimmer won't allow that again.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Rice vs. Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard. The Bengals are hoping Bernard is their Rice and what better game to show it as the Bengals counter Baltimore's pressure with tough-to-beat matchups on the perimeter? Outplay Rice, the biggest Bengals killer in the division (with no apologies to Big Ben), and it's a win.