It won't take long for the AFC's youngest team that slipped under the radar last year while making the playoffs to jump into the spotlight for the 2012 season.
Try opening weekend.
That's when Pro Bowl rookies A.J. Green and Andy Dalton make their regular-season prime-time debuts in a Monday-nighter that opens the season Sept. 10 on ESPN in a 7 p.m. game on the road at AFC North rival Baltimore.
It's the first of three prime-time games, Cincinnati's most since four in 2007, while hitting all three nights in the Bengals' bid to make the playoffs for the third time in four years.
"When you see the schedule, that's when you start to get jacked up for the season," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I feel good for our young guys that they're going to get their chance to play on national TV in front of their families and friends. And it's a great thing for the city of Cincinnati and the program. This isn't a team that is going to surprise anyone anymore. We're going to get teams' best shots."
|Fri.||Aug. 10||N.Y. JETS||7:30 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Thu.||Aug. 16||at Atlanta||8 p.m.||Georgia Dome|
|Thu.||Aug. 23||GREEN BAY||7 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Thu.||Aug. 30||at Indianapolis||7 p.m.||Lucas Oil Stadium|
|Mon.||Sept. 10||at Baltimore||7 p.m.||M&T Bank Stadium|
|Sun.||Sept. 16||CLEVELAND||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Sept. 23||at Washington||1 p.m.||FedExField|
|Sun.||Sept. 30||at Jacksonville||4:05 p.m.||EverBank Field|
|Sun.||Oct. 7||MIAMI||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Oct. 14||at Cleveland||1 p.m.||Cleveland Browns Stadium|
|Sun.||Oct. 21||PITTSBURGH||8:20 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Nov. 4||DENVER||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Nov. 11||N.Y. GIANTS||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Nov. 18||at Kansas City*||1 p.m.||Arrowhead Stadium|
|Sun.||Nov. 25||OAKLAND*||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Dec. 2||at San Diego*||4:15 p.m.||Qualcomm Stadium|
|Sun.||Dec. 9||DALLAS*||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Thu.||Dec. 13||at Philadelphia||8:20 p.m.||Lincoln Financial Field|
|Sun.||Dec. 23||at Pittsburgh*||1 p.m.||Heinz Field|
|Sun.||Dec. 30||BALTIMORE*||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|All times listed are Eastern|
|*Denotes a game subject to flexible scheduling|
* BENGALS SEASON TICKETS ON SALE*
Bengals season tickets are on sale at this time and offer new, reduced pricing in many sections. To order seats, call the Bengals Ticket Hotline at 513-621-TDTD (8383) or click here for more information. Season ticket customers benefit from discounted prices, preferred seating locations, playoff priority, and special events available exclusively to Bengals Season Ticket Holders. Information regarding the availability of mini-packs and single-game tickets will be released at a future date.
The Bengals host another AFC North rival, Pittsburgh, Sunday night in an 8:20 NBC game on Oct. 21 that takes the Bengals into the bye week after their seventh game. Their NFL Network Thursday night appearance comes Dec. 13 in Philadelphia.
That gives the Bengals a 10-day layoff before they play in Pittsburgh at 1 p.m. on Dec. 23. Then the Bengals close the season like they did this past season in a 1 p.m. game at home against the Ravens.
But it could get flexed to 4 p.m. (like last year) or to prime time. Since only games in Weeks 11-17 can be flexed, the three Bengals prime-time dates hold up because the Thursday-nighters don't get flexed.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko led the player reaction on Twitter with "Monday Night Week 1 baby!! WHO DEY baby!! Nothing like playing under the lights! #WorkToDo." With the PBS opener coming at 1 p.m. Sept 16 against Cleveland, it's the first time since 2007 the Bengals opened the season with two division games. And it's the first time they've closed with two division games since the current AFC North was formed in 2002. It's also the third straight year they've opened the season on the road.
"We start the season with a great opportunity," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in a news release, "Playing our division champion and AFC semifinalist (Baltimore) at their place. You never know at this point where the biggest challenges on a schedule are going to be, but obviously it looks like we also will have two very crucial division games to close the schedule."
But the most intriguing games of the year come in the heat of the day in three straight 1 p.m. PBS games during a November to remember. Dalton gets his first shot at the Manning brothers in back-to-back games when Peyton brings the Broncos in Nov. 4 and Eli arrives the next week on Nov. 11 with his Super Bowl champion Giants. After a 1 p.m. road game against the Chiefs on Nov. 18, Bengals fans get to feast on quarterback Carson Palmer's PBS return Thanksgiving Weekend on Nov. 25 against the Raiders.
While starting 99 games for the Bengals, including two postseason games, Palmer went 27-22 at PBS. The Raiders come in five years to the day he led the Bengals to a PBS rout of Tennessee in which he threw for 283 yards and a 113 rating while throwing three touchdowns to Chad Ochocinco.
The Bengals have never beaten Peyton Manning in seven tries, but they are 2-2 in their last four games against defending Super Bowl champions, and they roughed up rookie Eli Manning in his only PBS appearance in 2004.
As usual, the AFC North supplies the Bengals with their most daunting challenges.
After one of the most difficult openers in their history, the Bengals don't play a team that won more than six games last season until they host the Steelers Oct. 21.
Then the Bengals only play one game against a winning 2011 team (the 9-7 Giants) before finishing with the Steelers and Ravens, teams they haven't beaten since the second week of the 2010 season.
The season's first task is to break the Ravens 10-game home winning streak during the regular season. Baltimore has lost just once in the past two seasons at home during the regular season and that came to the Steelers back on Dec. 5, 2010. The Ravens have won 76 percent of their home games since 2001.
The Bengals haven't won in Baltimore since the last-minute fireworks in 2009 courtesy of Palmer's 22-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Caldwell with 20 seconds left.
But Lewis, the former Ravens defensive coordinator, has been more successful than most in his old yard. In his nine seasons as Bengals head coach the Bengals have won in Baltimore four times and haven't gone three straight seasons without a win there.
It's also five years to the day the Bengals opened the 2007 regular season at PBS on Monday night in which they beat the Ravens, 27-20, on a last-minute goal-line stand.
Dalton and his offense are going to be challenged early with all seven games before the bye against top 15 defenses from last year and three games against the top 10 iron of the AFC North with Pittsburgh first, Baltimore third, and Cleveland 10th. And when the Dolphins come to PBS for a 1 p.m. game Oct. 7, they bring defensive coordinator, Kevin Coyle, the Bengals secondary coach the past 11 seasons trying to spruce up a team that went 6-10 last season.
After the bye week, the Bengals have a curious run of five games in seven weeks against teams that finished 8-8 last year. They host the Broncos, Raiders and Cowboys, and travel to San Diego on Dec. 2 before ending the stretch on the tube against the Eagles.
That's when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer gets to flex the muscles of his unit that finished last year ranked seventh. The Eagles, Chargers and Cowboys finished last year fourth, sixth and ninth in offense, respectively, and the Raiders finished 11th. The Broncos won't be 23rd under Peyton Manning, but the brainchild of Oakland's offense, former head coach Hue Jackson, is now an assistant for Zimmer.
Three of the five Bengals games in December are on the road, but it kicks off in warm weather San Diego and they get the indoor Cowboys in a 1 p.m. game Dec. 9 at PBS before their Pennsylvania tour at the Eagles and Steelers, and the encore finale against the Ravens at PBS, where Lewis is 6-3 against Baltimore.
The Bengals stretch runs in their playoff seasons haven't mirrored their starts. In '05 they lost their last three, in '09 they lost four of their last five and last season they lost three of their last five. But Whitworth thinks it will be a different team this December.
"We had a lot of young guys on offense and I think it was more our execution than anything," Whitworth said. "Now we've been through it. You know now down the stretch you can't out-athlete guys. It's execution and we're going to have another year under our belt of Jay (Gruden)'s offense.
"And it's going to be pretty simple those last four games. When you end the season with two NFC East teams and two AFC North teams, the two best divisions in football, you know everyone is still going to be in it. There won't be a problem getting ready to play."
The Bengals also set their preseason schedule Tuesday and it opens with another intriguing quarterback at PBS in the person of Jets backup Tim Tebow in a 7:30 p.m. game on Friday, Aug. 10.
The Bengals go to Atlanta for a national TV game Aug. 16 on FOX at 8 p.m. and then host the Packers Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. before closing the preseason with another QB attraction in Indianapolis Aug. 30 in a 7 p.m. game that Andrew Luck figures to be quarterbacking for the Colts as the draft's overall No. 1 pick.
That Aug. 10 opener should put the start of training camp at July 26.