Bengals enter stage right for 2016 schedule

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After a quick glance at the 2016 Bengals schedule released Thursday night, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth got the message.

"We expect a lot from ourselves and so does the NFL," Whitworth said as the Bengals officially began the drive for their sixth straight play-off berth. "This is when you set your jaw. When you finally see where the challenges are."

In the wake of their second AFC North title in three years, the Bengals drew another franchise record with four prime-time games for the second straight year, led by NBC's Sunday night game on Dec. 18 at Paul Brown Stadium in their ever simmering AFC North rivalry with the Steelers. That's their only prime time game that could be flexed to a day game. They'll also have another stage to themselves when they play their first international game ever on Oct. 30 against Washington, televised on FOX from London at 9:30 a.m. Cincinnati time. And a 4:25 p.m. game in Dallas on Oct. 9 also figures to be played in front of most of the nation.

"Every year I've been here we've been more and more attractive," said safety George Iloka. "We're still trying to get over the hump in the playoffs, but every year we've beaten a lot of the top teams and I think the networks think that's attractive. As players we like the exposure and if that brings extra motivation, that's great."

Take a look at the 2016 Bengals schedule in pictures.

Add an emotional Opening Day in a 1 p.m. appointment at the Jets' MetLife Stadium on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and the Bengals are going across the calendar in the spotlight.

Their Sept. 25 home opener is against Super Bowl champion Denver and their last road game of the season is in Houston on Christmas Eve in an 8:25 p.m. stocking stuffer on NFL Network before what has become the annual regular-season finale against Baltimore the next week in a 1 p.m. game on New Year's Day.

"It's clear from the schedule that we're a team with a strong national appeal," said Katie Blackburn, Bengals executive vice-president, in Thursday night's news release. "We think that's an exciting factor for fans in our region, and we also look forward to opening our home season against the defending league champions."

Since the Green-Dalton era began with the 2011 draft, the Bengals have the fifth best record in the NFL with a .656 winning percentage, just a half game behind Seattle. And since 2013, their .698 percentage barely misses the top five in the .700 club led by Denver's .771. Now they've got audiences that match the numbers.

"When you start to do that every year, they put you on prime time to prove it," Whitworth said. "Big markets at big times. We had those kinds of games last year. Those challenges only make you better and help you grow as a team. We're used to that now."

After the Bengals play their first two games on the road, they get their shot at Denver's No. 1 winning percentage when the Broncos open the home schedule Sept. 25 in a 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium.

Bengals Season Tickets are on sale with packages priced as low as $340, an average of just under $38 per game. Fans interested in becoming Season Ticket Members may call the Bengals Ticket Hotline at 866-621-TDTD (8383) or visit www.Bengals.com/tickets. Single-game ticket pricing and availability are not yet set.

"Season Ticket Members receive the lowest available price per seat and the best available locations," said Duane Haring, Bengals Director of Ticket Sales & Service in the news release. "In addition to those core advantages, members receive a range of added benefits, including guaranteed rights to their seats for playoff games.

"We urge fans who have been awaiting the release of the schedule to act now," Haring added. "We have had excellent response to date from Season Ticket Members renewing for 2016, and sales of new Season Ticket accounts have been brisk over the winter and early spring."

With the hub of the their defense, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the season after a hit in the volatile Wild Card loss to the Steelers, there were eyebrows raised that Burfict is out for that second game of the year in Pittsburgh. Whitworth indicated there is a sense the Steelers got off lightly for their actions in the Wild Card Game and the Bengals didn't.

"It doesn't surprise me," Whitworth said. "A lot of people thought they'd put us and the Steelers on TV when Tez came back in the fourth game. I never saw that as a scenario. Just how this whole thing played out. The discipline he's received, the discipline they haven't received. It doesn't shock me. We basically got punished twice. Everybody knows we're going to be contending with them. We know they're going to be heavy favorites to go to the Super Bowl and we're a good team and we're going to be up there in a lot of people's minds.

"It's not unfair, but it's unfortunate," Whitworth said. "A lot of teams overcome a lot of things . . . We did that last year when (Andy Dalton) got hurt and we were a few plays away from winning a play-off game. And people forget. We didn't have Tez for the first six games last year."

Iloka said he's not so much thinking about Burfict missing the Steelers game, but the first three games as a whole.

"Those are three AFC games and not to have one of your defensive starters and leaders out there, that puts you at a disadvantage," Iloka said. "But we'll be all right."

That seemed to be the overall reaction even though five of the first eight games are on the road, including the monstrous trip across the pond. Plus, there are two sets of back-to-back road games by Oct. 16.

Clearly those first eight games are going to dictate how the season goes.

"That can be a good thing because you can stay in that road mindset," Whitworth said.

And the Bengals have a road warrior in Dalton. Since he came into the league he has third best road record among active quarterbacks at 24-14. According to Elias that's behind only Alex Smith (23-12) and Tom Brady (26-14).

It's a good thing. For the seventh straight year, the Bengals open on the road. Dalton has never opened at home. And they don't this year even though the Reds are on the road Sept. 11 and the riverfront is vacant.

"I don't mind," Iloka said. "I'd rather have home games at the end of the year when the games really matter. It's great that last game is always at home with the Ravens. It seems like we're always playing for something, a Wild Card or a bye."

Ask and you shall receive. Three of the last five games are at home, a better finish than the last two seasons. Last year three of the last five were on the road and in 2014 it was five of the last seven.

The Bengals have basically grown numb to not having a home opener. Only six guys on this team remember what it was like: Whitworth, nose tackle Domata Peko, right end Michael Johnson, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, defensive tackle Pat Sims, and punter Kevin Huber.

Of course, it was such a stunning loss, an excruciating 12-7 gut kick to Denver that makes the Really Wild Card Game almost tame, no one seems to mind. It will be recalled that on Sept. 13, 2009 the Bengals had a 7-6 lead with the clock ticking under 20 seconds and the Broncos backed up on their 13. Somehow, some way, a pass got batted in the air for an 87-yard TD and the longest game-winning touchdown from scrimmage in the final minute of the fourth quarter in NFL history and, well . . .

 "I'd just as soon not have home openers after that if they're anything like that," Whitworth said.

Maybe it's good luck there have been no home openers because the Bengals have been contenders ever since. They swept the '09 AFC North to begin a run of three division titles and six play-off berths in the last seven seasons. Since 2011, the NFL's best five records belong to New England (61 -19), Denver (58 -22), Green Bay (56-23-1), Seattle (53 -27), and Cincinnati (52-27-1).

They get a chance this season to stake a claim for AFC supremacy against the two top teams. After opening PBS with the Broncos, they go to New England three weeks later for a 1 p.m. game on Oct. 16. The last time both clubs were in Cincinnati, the Bengals won.

"The one thing we've proven," Whitworth said, "is it's key to get a good start. If you get a good start, anything can happen. You set yourself up."

That '09 team started 7-2. Dalton's rookie year got off at 6-2 for a Wild Card. The 2013 AFC North champs went 6-2 and last year's champs were famously 8-0. The '14 Wild Carders were 5-2-1. The only year in this run that defied a slow start was in 2012, when a 7-1 finish erased a 3-5 start.

So they'd love to find a way to carve out six wins out of that first eight despite two back-to-back road trips and London. Then comes the bye.

"I don't think you look at where or when," Whitworth said. "You know you have to go on the road at some point and we've played pretty well just doing that."

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