A glance ahead

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          Hue Jackson eyes six top ten defenses in 2015.

According to the 2014 NFL rankings in offense, defense, and special teams, the Bengals begin their drive for five bracing to play half of the league's top ten teams. The 2015 matchups are split between Paul Brown Stadium (No. 2 Baltimore, No. 4 Seattle and No. 10 Kansas City) and on the road at the Ravens, No. 3 Denver, and No. 5 Buffalo.

The full schedule with dates and times is released in mid-April.

Ranked 15th in offense, 22nd in defense, and sixth in special teams, the Bengals total of 43 is good for 12th in the NFL after a season they joined New England and Denver as the only AFC teams to make it to four straight postseasons.

That mirrors the strength of schedule reported by CBS Sports.com this week, which has the Bengals with the second toughest schedule in the league with the combined record of their 2014 opponents at .563. Only Pittsburgh has a tougher schedule at .579.

It's not a bad gauge. The Bengals went into last season facing teams that had a winning percentage of .469 and their opponents ended the season at a combined .496. It's another reminder it's going to be a bear to qualify for the playoffs if you don't win the AFC North.

Another reason: the Browns (.543) have the ninth toughest and the Ravens (.539) the 11th.

The Bengals could get a break playing four new coaching staffs on the road in Buffalo, Denver, Oakland, and San Francisco.

By taking the rankings of offense (3), defense (11) and Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin's special teams standings (7), the Colts finished with a league-low 21 points. They are followed by the Ravens (25), Broncos (26), Seattle and New England (each 27) and Buffalo (32) and the Bengals play everyone on that list but Super Bowl champion New England.

The Steelers (41) finished just ahead of the Bengals at No. 11 and the other AFC North team, the Browns (63) finished tied for 23rd with Washington. The only other team the Bengals play in the bottom half of the league are the Raiders, fifth worst with a combined ranking of 75.

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been saying since the season ended his unit has to make leaps in its second year in his system and a big reason is because it goes against six top ten defenses. They face three of the top four, but all three are getting makeovers.

Among the assignments are visits to Buffalo, where new head coach Rex Ryan inherits the No. 4 Bills, and Denver, where Wade Phillips steps in for Jack Del Rio at coordinator for the No. 3 Broncos.

NFC champion Seattle's top-ranked group is also going to be in transition as coordinator Dan Quinn moves to the Falcons as head coach.

Meanwhile, the Bengals defense plays six offenses that finished 20th or worse in the rankings, including No. 32 Oakland. But No. 24 Arizona and No. 28 St. Louis figure to be better with healthy quarterbacks. They face three top ten offenses and get two of them at PBS against the No. 2 Steelers and No. 9 Seahawks. The Bengals play the No. 3 Broncos in Denver a year after they beat quarterback Peyton Manning for the first time in nine tries this past season.

The only higher ranked special teams the No. 6 Bengals play is the No. 5 Ravens. The other top ten teams, the Chiefs (eight) and Rams (nine), have to bring their elite punters to PBS.

The Falcons, thanks to their lowly NFC South, have the easiest ride at .409 when it comes to strength of schedule. The south is the place to be. The Colts and Texans, battling for the AFC South against a slate of .417 foes, are tied with the second easiest sked, followed by NFC South Tampa at .425.

Cincinnati Bengals host Denver Broncos Monday night 12/22/2014

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