As the great debate swirls around flex scheduling, the Bengals appear ready to flex their muscles for the second straight year with the maximum amount of prime-time games when the NFL schedule is released next month.
That number is now at six and the man who hinted they'd get the max last year says he wouldn't be surprised if quarterback Joe Burrow's popular two-time AFC finalists with a marquee schedule do it again.
Mike North, the NFL's vice president for broadcasting, planning and scheduling, says just about every game on Cincinnati's schedule is compelling.
"I would expect them to be pretty close to maxed out in terms of their prime-time appearances," said North last week in a hotel lobby at the NFL spring meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., as he offered a glimpse at how the Bengals shape up in front of the schedule-makers.
"You can find a really good national television home for probably 12 of their 17 games. That tells you what we think of the Bengals. They're going to be seen on a lot of national television."
In the past two seasons, Burrow and his Bengals have been at their best when the lights are on. They are 5-2 in the playoffs and have won two straight AFC North titles with Burrow commandeering a stretch he won 16 straight starts in the big-viewing windows of November, December, and January.
"Look, they play good games. They're always competitive," North said. "The scene at 'The Jungle,' in Cincinnati has become something where even our network partners are starting to talk about. What a scene it's become. The place is always full and when you think of a blimp shot on the overhead camera with the river and the stadium right there, it's exactly what our television partners are looking for.
"It's winning. It's also star players and their star players haven't broken through the national conversation. Burrow is a superstar and he has ascended into that upper echelon," North said of what exactly attracts the prime-time lights. "You judge it by wins. You judge it by deep playoff runs. You judge it by TV viewership. Our fans will tell us."
After the last two AFC championship games, the NFL heard the message loud and clear and became Bengals believers as the ratings soared. First, back in the 2021 championship, it was 48.5 million viewers on CBS. Then, Sports Media Watch said this last AFC title game drew 53.12 million viewers for the most-watched conference championship game in five years and the most-watched television program since the Rams came from behind in the last 85 seconds to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI.
Burrow and Mahomes over Oscar and Kevin Costner.
"When you start talking about 50 million people watching championship games," North said, "those are heights we haven't been to before. I hope it's sustainable. That's a really big number to get to."
Although they were supposed to be seen five times in prime time last season, only three Bengals games made it. Their Nov. 20 Sunday night game in Pittsburgh was flexed to that afternoon and the Jan. 2 Monday nighter at Paycor Stadium against the Bills was canceled.
Even after the Bengals went to Orchard Park for a decisive divisional victory three weeks later in the playoffs, it looks as if they're headed back to prime time. At kickoff back on Jan. 2, the game was already on the way to becoming one of the highest-rated Monday nighters of the season.
How about putting it in the first Monday night slot of the season? The Monday Nighter yet to be played?
"You could see that (again) on Monday Night Football," North said. "But that game might almost be good enough to crack into that top ten and then you start to talk about 25-30 million viewers and you're talking about a Sunday afternoon doubleheader, you're talking about Sunday Night Football. You could be talking about something really early, like a Week One Sunday Night or Monday Night. There are great opportunities and I think everybody's going to be interested in that game right at the beginning."
The Bengals have another potential juicy matchup worthy of Opening Night in Kansas City on Thursday, Sept. 7. They've met four times the past two seasons and all but one of the games has been decided on the last snap and that one was by a field goal.
But what looks like a lock isn't so much as North looked at it from all sides. Not only would the Bengals be a great story on Opening Night against the Chiefs, but so would Buffalo. How about a rematch of last year's Super Bowl epic finish against the Eagles? The Raiders or Chargers as division foes would be riveting for the Chiefs. The Bears or Lions would offer a different lure of teams on the rise challenging the best.
"Wouldn't it be great to build up to something that has arguably become the best rivalry in the AFC? Every time they play, they play close games and if we're going to start the season with a bang, that would be one way to do it," North said of Bengals-Chiefs. "You make a calculated gamble. It would still be worth something to you in November and December, but if you're wrong and one of those teams has an injury or struggles or, worse, clinches, you don't get that maximum value out of that asset for our fans.
"So maybe you save Chargers and Raiders for later and assume the division is going to matter, but a game like Detroit or Chicago might be worth more in week one than at any other point. What are the fans most interested in seeing each week of the year? That's hard to do five months out."
All four of those Bengals-Chiefs games have come in December or January, which may or may not eliminate them from the opener discussion.
"It's worked. It's worked great. If we deploy it that way, you can see why we did it," North said. "Those late-season big games, play them in double-header windows on CBS, FOX, play them on Sunday Night Football, 25-30 million people watching as elite teams jockey for playoff positioning is a really good use of an asset like that after Thanksgiving."
It's at about this time North quotes his boss, Howard Katz, the NFL's senior vice president of broadcasting & media operations.
"There are a lot of mouths to feed," Katz will tell you of the partners.
Or as North says, "It's a balancing act. What's best for NBC might not be the best for ESPN and what's best for the Bengals might not be best for the Ravens. You have to thread that needle so everybody is just a little disappointed."
It sounds like Bengals fans won't be disappointed by the data the league is using to determine its most popular teams. Items such as jersey sales, Instagram followers, and social media posts have been a boon to Burrow and his Bengals.
"Fans love him. Kids love him. We're always trying to skew younger and he's a popular guy," North said. "We try to find out who are fans are most interested in and then reward them by putting those teams in the biggest television windows. That's where the Bengals have been the last couple of years and that's where we expect them to be the next couple."