The frenzy of the beginning of the 2014 National Football League free agency period has calmed, leaving somewhat of a lull in the NFL news cycle. Unsigned free agents will continue to sign with teams, but the newsworthy portion of the NFL calendar turning over has passed. In this day and age, with fans constantly clamoring for news, the next anticipatory event will be when the league announces the 2014 schedule. Today, Bengals.com will analyze the Cincinnati Bengals 2014 opponents in advance of the full schedule announcement.
2014 Bengals home opponents: Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Carolina, Denver
2014 Bengals road opponents: Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, New England
In addition to the customary home and road games against each of their AFC North Division foes, the Bengals will also play the teams from the AFC South and the NFC South. By way of winning the 2013 AFC North division title, the Bengals will play a "first-place schedule," and their extra two games will pit them against fellow AFC Division winners, the New England Patriots of the East and the reigning AFC Champion Denver Broncos of the West.
Despite the extra first-place competition, there is one comparison that makes the 2014 schedule appear a tad less taxing than the 2013 slate the Bengals navigated to finish 11-5 with the AFC North title. If one compares the 2013 records of the 2013 foes with the 2013 records of the 2014 opponents, the 2014 bunch is less formidable by the margin of 11 percentage points. The 2013 opponents finished with an aggregate mark of .480 (122-132-2), and the 2014 group was at .469 (120-136-0).
But it could be a tougher road for the Bengals to repeat as AFC North champions in 2014.
Let's start with two teams that largely underachieved in 2013 that look to have a return to form in 2014: the Atlanta Falcons and the Houston Texans. Prior to last season, both teams were perennial playoff contenders, with the Texans ousting the Bengals from the postseason in both the 2011 and '12 seasons. Both teams were considered Super Bowl contenders for '13 but hugely disappointed. The Falcons finished with a 4-12 record and the Texans with the worst record in the NFL at 2-14. Both teams will certainly be out to prove that their '13 campaigns were merely an outlier as they hope to get back to their winning ways.
Both teams still have a plethora of talent. The Falcons have a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Matt Ryan and one of the best receiving tandems in the league in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Both suffered injuries in 2013 but will be back with something to prove next season. The Falcons also addressed some needs in free agency with the signings of DT Paul Soliai from Miami, DE Tyson Jackson and G Jon Asamoah both from Kansas City, and return man Devin Hester from Chicago.
Houston holds the number one pick in the upcoming draft in April. Although not a guarantee, it is likely the Texans will select a quarterback, following starter Matt Schaub's departure to Oakland. In addition, the Texans still have one of the best defensive players in the NFL, DE J.J. Watt, and offensive playmakers in WR's Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins and RB Arian Foster.
Another 2014 foe that disappointed last season and hopes to improve for 2014 is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs finished 4-12 last season but have undergone a makeover prior to this season with a new coach, new players and even new uniforms. Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith takes the reins of the Bucs from Greg Schiano after his disappointing stint as head coach. Bengals fans are all too familiar with two of the Bucs newest players, former Bengals DE Michael Johnson and OT Anthony Collins. The Bucs signed yet another former Bengal in DT Clinton McDonald, fresh off his Super Bowl win with the Seattle Seahawks last season. In addition to poaching former Bengals, the Bucs have also brought in QB Josh McCown, coming off a fine season with the Bears, and CB Alterraun Verner from Tennessee to replace CB Darrelle Revis, who jettisoned to New England. McCown will compete for the starting job with incumbent starter Mike Glennon who is looking to build off a solid rookie season.
Staying in the NFC South, the Bengals will face off against a pair of 2013 playoff teams: the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints. The Panthers made the leap last year and were one of the biggest surprises of the season as they finished with a 12-4 record en route to a NFC South title. The Panthers were anchored by a strong defense that finished second in the NFL in points allowed. The Carolina game will be at Paul Brown Stadium, and so will mark the return to the Queen City of LB Luke Kuechly, the St. Xavier High product who was 2013 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL. On offense, the Panthers continue to be led by the ever improving and '13 Pro Bowl selection Cam Newton at quarterback. They will however, have to deal with the departure of 13-year Panther veteran WR Steve Smith, as he was released and signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Saints finished last season with an 11-5 record and made the playoffs as a Wild Card team. They defeated Green Bay in the Wild Card round but went on to lose to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Seahawks. They brought in a big name free agent in S Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills. On offense, they must make up for the loss of dynamic RB Darren Sproles, but with QB Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton in charge, they will be strong playoff contenders yet again in 2014.
Switching over to the AFC opponents, the six division games are never an easy task. The division-winning Bengals finished 3-3 in those games in 2013, sweeping the home slate but going winless on the road.
The biggest change in the division comes with the Cleveland Browns, who have a new coach and general manager for the second consecutive year. Former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine replaces Rob Chudzinski as head coach, and Ray Farmer was promoted to GM. The Browns finished 4-12 last season and hold the fourth pick in the upcoming draft. They are likely looking to select a quarterback, a position which has been in flux with that franchise for quite a long time. The Browns picked up a couple of nice offensive pieces in RB Ben Tate from Houston and restricted free agent WR Andrew Hawkins from the Bengals, after Cincinnati declined to match the offer sheet tendered by the Browns. Cleveland finished ninth in total defense last season and added S Donte Whitner in free agency from San Francisco.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers each finished out of the playoffs at 8-8 in 2013. It was the first year since 1999 in which both franchises failed to qualify, and both of course are looking to etch their way back into the playoff picture. In '13, the Ravens became the second consecutive Super Bowl Champion to miss the playoffs the following season (NY Giants missed playoffs in '12 after winning Super Bowl in '11), and the Steelers missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
The Ravens were able to re-sign a few key pieces in OT Eugene Monroe, TE Dennis Pitta and WR/return man Jacoby Jones, and as previously mentioned, they brought in WR Steve Smith from Carolina. The Steelers have added RB LaGarrette Blount from New England, to complement him with second-year RB LeVeon Bell, following Bell's successful rookie season. On defense they added S Mike Mitchell (Fort Thomas, Ky.) after his breakout season with Carolina. While both the Ravens and Steelers remain largely unchanged, they always prove to be difficult teams to beat for the Bengals.
The Bengals will face off against a trio of AFC playoff teams from 2013: Indianapolis, New England and Denver. The Bengals defeated both the Colts and Patriots in '13 but did not play the eventual AFC Champion Broncos. With '13 MVP Peyton Manning at age 38, the Broncos know their window of opportunity to win is rapidly closing, therefore, made a rather large splash in free agency this offseason. After allowing 43 points to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl the Broncos needed to shore up their defense, and that's what they have attempted to do by signing CB Aqib Talib from New England, S T.J. Ward from Cleveland and DE DeMarcus Ware from Dallas. The Patriots, not wanting to fall behind in the arms race, signed CB's Darrelle Revis from Tampa Bay and Brandon Browner from Seattle. They also retained a key player on offense in WR Julian Edelman.
The Bengals in 2014 look to be one of the top contenders in the AFC yet again, but they are going to have their work cut out for them if they want to repeat as North Division champs. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and the Bengals have the opportunity to do just that next season.