The Bengals 2013 schedule contains teams that had a .508 winning percentage last season, but with the NFL scouting combine 10 days away, free agency a month away, and the draft more than two months away, it could be a lot harder or a lot easier on May 1.
But here's a thumbnail look at the sked before the rosters get reworked. The dates of the games won't be released until mid-April, which can have as much impact as anything else.
RAVENS (10-6 in 2012)
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals MLB Vontaze Burfict vs. Ravens RB Ray Rice. Forget that quarterback Joe Flacco is the reigning Super Bowl MVP and one of four Super Bowl MVPs to play at Paul Brown Stadium this season, joining Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, New England's Tom Brady and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.
It is always Rice the guy defenses have to stop and with all indications that Burfict is being groomed to be the starting Mike backer, he and Rice can continue their war of words that began in last year's regular-season finale at PBS. Now that the Ravens are rebuilding a defense that looked old and out of gas in the second half of the Super Bowl, slowing down the Ravens offense has to be the priority.
Although NFL.com bandied the belief that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o is a fit for the Bengals with the 21st pick, don't buy it.
It's hard to see them taking an inside backer that high, they've already got Burfict, and they've shown more of an aversion to challenging off-field cases in the last few years and not less.
BIG STAT: Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has always shown up pretty well against Flacco. Not counting last season's regular-season finale in which he played just two series, Flacco has thrown more picks (10) than TDs (nine) against the Bengals with a passer rating of 78.3.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals QB Andy Dalton vs. Bengals DC Dick LeBeau. When the Bengals beat the Steelers in the would-be AFC North Wild Card game at Heinz Field back on Dec. 23, LeBeau dared Dalton to beat him by selling out on the run and holding the Bengals to 14 yards rushing on 16 carries. Even with Pittsburgh's top cornerback, Ike Taylor, out, and the next best one, Keenan Lewis banged up, the Bengals didn't beat the Steelers until four seconds left, helped by Dalton's 21-yard rope to wide receiver A.J. Green on the sidelines. Dalton can expect more of the same from LeBeau, particularly with Pittsburgh's top pass rusher, outside linebacker James Harrison, expected to be a salary cap casualty.
BIG STAT: In four games against LeBeau's defense, Green has 18 catches for 247 yards for a 13.7-yard average and three TDs. In 13 regular-season games against LeBeau, Chad Johnson had two touchdowns as well as 56 catches for 704 yards for a 12.6-yard average.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals C Kyle Cook vs. Browns NT Phil Taylor. Old friend Ray Horton, a Super Bowl Bengal, Cincinnati's second-round pick in the 1983 draft and former Bengals secondary coach, brings his aggressive, all-out pressure version of the 3-4 defense learned at the foot of LeBeau while playing and coaching for him in Cincinnati. Taylor figures to make the transition to the nose. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has yet to say if he'll declare center an open competition between Cook and Trevor Robinson, but Cook is going to be better equipped to handle both competition and games since his ankle is going to be healthier than it was at the end of last season.
BIG STAT: It's the fourth time the Browns have changed coaches in Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's 11 seasons in Cincinnati. In those three previous seasons (2005, 2009, 2011), the Bengals are 6-0 against Cleveland while rushing for an average of 161 yards in those games. Horton's defenses were a lot stingier than that in Arizona, so the Bengals would no doubt like to catch Cleveland early as the Browns go through the 3-4 transition.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham vs. Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.Gresham, Gronkowski and Hernandez, the three most sought-after tight ends in the 2010 draft, made their NFL debuts in the same game when the Bengals opened that season in Foxboro. Gresham and Gronkowski each scored a TD and Hernandez had the longest play of the game when he was uncovered on a 45-yard pass.
Gresham has gone to the last two Pro Bowls, but judging by his tweets he was clearly frustrated by his outing in the Wild Card playoff in Houston when he dropped more balls than he caught. The Bengals are looking for Gresham to overcome the inconsistencies that have plagued him his first three seasons, which they feel would put him in the elite class. What better stage than against his two draft mates?
BIG STAT: Brady has pretty much had his way against of all three of Lewis's defensive coordinators in compiling a 4-0 record against the Bengals since the first time he played them in 2004, 2-0 at PBS and 2-0 in Foxboro. His numbers vs. the Bengals: 83 completions on 119 throws for 70 percent passing to go with 10 TDs and two interceptions while throwing for 937 yards at 7.9 yards per throw in stringing together a 114 passer rating.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals CB Leon Hall vs. Jets CB Darrelle Revis. They were the first two cornerbacks taken in the 2007 draft (Revis went 14th and Hall 18th) and while Revis has earned fame and fortune with his Revis Island nickname denoting the league's best cover corner, Hall Monitor has quietly put together a solid career that has been the major part of three playoff berths.
His interception returns for the only Bengals touchdowns in Cincinnati's two elimination games last season capped off an NFL Comeback of the Year-type season off of a torn Achilles. Revis can only hope he comes back like that from his torn ACL.
BIG STAT: This is one of two PBS games where the Bengals play two head coaches that worked for Lewis. Rex Ryan of the Jets served as Lewis's defensive line coach in Baltimore and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier became Lewis's first defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. Ryan has a 34-30 record with the Jets while Lewis is 33-31 in the same four-year stretch.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals DC Mike Zimmer vs. Packers DC Dom Capers. Two of the top defensive guys around with Capers bringing in the No. 11 defense from last season and Zimmer off his third top 10 finish (No. 7) in his five seasons with the Bengals.
Green Bay is a tough town. After San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick dusted the Pack in the playoffs with the most rushing yards ever by a quarterback, the fans wanted Capers gone even though he brought up the defense from dead last the year before.
BIG STAT: This is where Zimmer comes in. The Packers gave up the second-most sacks in the league with 51 last season. The Bengals finished with the third-most in the NFL with a franchise-record 51.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Dalton vs. Vikings QB Christian Ponder. It's just the third time Dalton has gone against one of the quarterbacks taken ahead of him in the 2011 draft. Dalton, who went 35th, is 2-0 against Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert, taken No. 10. Ponder, taken No. 12, has a 12-14 career record, but like Dalton led his team to a Wild Card berth in his second season with a 10-6 record. Dalton has the edge on Ponder with six more starts, seven more victories, 16 more touchdown passes, a better career passer rating (83.9 to 77.1) and one more playoff appearance.
BIG STAT: The reigning NFL MVP comes to town in the form of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. He's coming off a season he missed breaking Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old single-season rushing by nine yards with a monster year of 2,097.
How much? BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cedric Benson led the Bengals in rushing the past two seasons with a combined total of 2,161.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals CBs vs. Colts QB Andrew Luck. Two of the top three Bengals cornerbacks, Terence Newman and Adam Jones, are unsigned and the club is hopeful it can sign up both of them with No. 1 pick Dre Kirkpatrick on deck after hardly playing from scrimmage as a rookie. Hall, Newman and Jones were brilliant over the last eight games of last season, when the Bengals allowed only four touchdown passes and never more than one in a game. In his rookie season, Luck threw more than one TD pass in half of his 16 games and had one four-TD game.
BIG STAT: The Bengals never beat Luck's successor, Peyton Manning, in his seven starts against them as a Colt. But the Bengals went 2-1 at PBS last season against quarterbacks picked No. 1 overall, beating Eli Manning of the Giants and Oakland's Carson Palmer, and losing to Denver's Peyton Manning.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals LG Clint Boling and RG Kevin Zeitler vs. Bills DT Kyle Williams. It's doubtful that Buffalo under new head coach Doug Marrone is going to pay old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick to play quarterback, but the Bengals know for sure they'll have to stop the Pro Bowler Williams. Boling and Zeitler should be familiar with the type. At 6-1, 300 pounds, Williams has a similar style to Cincinnati's own Pro Bowler, Geno Atkins. Williams is one of the few threats with the Bills coming off a 31st ranking against the run last season.
BIG STAT: Remember when the Bills were 3-0 when they came into PBS on Oct. 2, 2011 and the Bengals beat them on the strength of Dalton's first fourth-quarter comeback? Buffalo is 9-20 since. But the Bengals haven't won in Orchard Park since Boomer Esiason outdueled Vince Ferragamo on Nov. 3, 1985 for a 23-17 victory during the season before Jim Kelly arrived to quarterback the Bills.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Bengals WR Andrew Hawkins vs. Bears HC Marc Trestman. Hawkins played for two of Trestman's Grey Cup teams in Montreal and can give his club insight on Trestman's highly-regarded offensive mind that returns to the NFL. The Bengals will need a refresher course. They faced him when he was the offensive coordinator for the Browns in 1989, the 49ers in 1996, the Cardinals in 2000, and when he was the assistant head coach for the Dolphins in 2004. Cincinnati is 4-1 against those teams, but only left end Robert Geathers, whom the Bengals hope to re-sign, was around as a rookie in '04.
Another one to watch. Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Bears CB Tim Jennings. Jennings led the NFL with nine picks last season, but Green beat him twice for TDs in the Pro Bowl.
BIG STAT: Lewis is 19-12 against first-year head coaches.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Green vs. Dolphins CB Sean Smith. Long-time Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle came back to torture Cincinnati at PBS last season as Miami's first-year defensive coordinator in a 17-13 Dolphins victory. Smith had a career year under Coyle and he played Green tough, holding him to 65 yards on nine catches after Green had been named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for September.
But Smith had help with a zone made possible by Miami's top-ranked defense throttling the run. In the game the Bengals lost speed back Bernard Scott early with an ACL injury, BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried six times in the last three quarters and only once did he gain more than three yards, and that five-yarder came on his last carry. More evidence the Bengals need a healthy Scott or a young speedster in the draft to complement BJGE.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: Green vs. Lions WR Calvin Johnson. Green gets on the field for the first time against his offseason workout partner in Atlanta and the guy coming off the greatest receiving season in history with 1,964 yards. A comparison after their first two seasons in the NFL: Green has 162 catches for 18 TDs and a 14.9-yard average. In 2007 and 2008, Johnson combined for 126 catches and 16 TDs and a 16.6 average.
BIG STAT: Lewis is 7-1 vs. the NFC North, 3-1 on the road.
PROJECTED BIG MATCHUP: The Chargers couldn't block Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap after they lost right tackle Jeromey Clary on the second snap of Cincinnati's 20-13 victory in San Diego last season. Dunlap came up with two sacks and strips of quarterback Philip Rivers, the last one a huge turnover with less than four minutes left at the San Diego 13 and the Bengals leading, 17-13. New head coach Mike McCoy is going to have to figure out how to protect Rivers like he did Peyton Manning in Denver last season.
BIG STAT: After going 4-9 in San Diego, the Bengals are 2-1 under Lewis out there on what has been historically one of their toughest junkets. Dalton is 4-1 against the NFC and AFC West on the road.