Updated: 8:50 p.m.
For the first time in their history the Bengals are playing on Thanksgiving, but their 2010 season is no holiday with four of the first six games on the road and four of their last six against playoff teams from last season.
But along with one of the league's toughest schedules the 2009 AFC North title also has brought the Bengals five prime-time games for the first time since 1990. Two are set for the preseason and three more for the regular season in a slate headed by the Nov. 8 ESPN game at Paul Brown Stadium that is their first Monday night game against the Steelers in 18 years. They also get the bright lights of Broadway Thanksgiving night on NFL Network in an 8:20 p.m. rematch of the Wild Card loss to New York in the Jets' new stadium.
"It's nice for a lot of people to be able to see us after last year," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth of a season the Bengals didn't go prime time until they got flexed the last week of the year. "But now we'll find out how far we've come. We're playing great teams on big stages and I think this team is ready to take that next step."
The Bengals could get flexed out of the Dec. 26 Sunday night game at PBS against the Chargers scheduled for 8:20 on NBC. They could also get flexed in in five of their last six games, which are subject to time and network change with only the Thanksgiving game frozen.
It's the first time Whitworth has ever played on the holiday. The closest he came was LSU's day-after game against Arkansas.
"I'm looking forward to that," he said. "And it gives my wife a chance to go home and shoot a deer."
New Bengals wide receiver Antonio Bryant likes the fact that people won't have to hunt to find his games. Asked earlier Tuesday what the first thing he looks for on the schedule, he said Monday night games.
"You definitely want to get a chance to have the spotlight," he said. "There are only two teams playing in most of the prime-time games. It's just an opportunity to light it up for your family and friends. Everybody puts that on their calendar."
|Sun.||Aug. 8||Dallas||8 p.m.||Canton, OH|
|Sun.||Aug. 15||DENVER||7 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Fri.||Aug. 20||PHILADELPHIA||8 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sat.||Aug. 28||at Buffalo||6:30 p.m.||Ralph Wilson Stadium|
|Thu.||Sept. 2||at Indianapolis||7 p.m.||Lucas Oil Stadium|
|Sun.||Sept. 12||at New England||1 p.m.||Gillette Stadium|
|Sun.||Sept. 19||BALTIMORE||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Sept. 26||at Carolina||1 p.m.||Bank of America Stadium|
|Sun.||Oct. 3||at Cleveland||1 p.m.||Cleveland Browns Stadium|
|Sun.||Oct. 10||TAMPA BAY||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Oct. 24||at Atlanta||1 p.m.||Georgia Dome|
|Sun.||Oct. 31||MIAMI||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Mon.||Nov. 8||PITTSBURGH||8:30 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Nov. 14||at Indianapolis||1 p.m.||Lucas Oil Stadium|
|Sun.||Nov. 21||BUFFALO||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Thu.||Nov. 25||at N.Y. Jets||8:20 p.m.||New Jets Stadium|
|Sun.||Dec. 5||NEW ORLEANS||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Dec. 12||at Pittsburgh||1 p.m.||Heinz Field|
|Sun.||Dec. 19||CLEVELAND||1 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Dec. 26||SAN DIEGO||8:20 p.m.||Paul Brown Stadium|
|Sun.||Jan. 2||at Baltimore||1 p.m.||M&T Bank Stadium|
|All times listed are Eastern|
|*Denotes a game subject to flexible scheduling|
At least in Cincinnati NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made good on his pledge to schedule more division games late in the season to guarantee more competitive games and stop the spread of coaches resting starters for teams that have already made the playoffs. The Bengals play three of their final four games against AFC North foes in a stretch that starts Dec. 12 in Pittsburgh, ends the season Jan. 2 in Baltimore, and is sandwiched by a Dec. 19 PBS game against Cleveland. All are 1 p.m. starts.
Last season the Bengals had completed their first division sweep ever by Nov. 29 and raced to a 3-0 lead by Oct. 11. In 2010, the Bengals don't play their third North game until Nov. 8 in the Monday nighter. Given that's the ninth week of the season, it looks like the Bengals will face Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice this season.
"You kind of want to get (the division games) early," said safety Chris Crocker. "The second half of the season you want to get them early also because those games are more important than the rest of the games. You kind of want to get those guys first, especially early in the season when you're healthy and have everybody ready to go."
The Oct. 17 bye is the third latest in head coach Marvin Lewis' eight seasons, but comes after just the fifth game of the season. Still, it's a good spot because it arrives after the Bengals open the season with three of their first four games on the road for just the second time in franchise history.
They hope it works out as well as the first time when the Bengals went 2-2 before finishing 10-4 to win the 1973 AFC Central Division.
"As a defending division champion, we knew we were scheduled against the other three division winners in the AFC," said Lewis in a news release, "and today's release of the dates and kickoff times brings the anticipated challenges.
"We open with two games against 2009 playoff teams (Patriots and Ravens), and we will have the players' attention right away regarding having three of the first four away from home. We do get the payback of having two of the last three games at home, and you are looking for great support from your home crowd in those crucial finishing games."
The Bengals play their season opener on the road for the fifth time in the last six years when they go to AFC East champ New England for a Sept. 12 game at 1 p.m. After the PBS regular-season opener Sept. 19 against the other AFC North team that made the playoffs, Baltimore, the Bengals go to Carolina Sept. 26 and Cleveland Oct. 3 before a home game against Tampa Bay Oct. 10 sends them into the bye week.
Whitworth doesn't have to be reminded what the Patriots did to the Bengals at PBS in 2006 and 2007, 38-13 and 34-13 respectively.
"We haven't done very well with New England and to me that's a big test for this team," Whitworth said. "They're one of the great teams and this will show how far we've come. We're a different team than we were then."
On paper it looks like that's where the Bengals better make hay before going on the road Oct. 24 to play an estimable Falcons team coming off its first back-to-back winning seasons ever. Carolina (8-8), Cleveland (5-11) and Tampa (3-13) are coming off non-winning seasons, but the Browns won four straight to end '09 while the Panthers won their last three.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has emphasized pass defense this season and the eight-game stretch from Nov. 8 to Dec. 26 shows why because the Bengals play five games against quarterbacks that finished in the top six in NFL passing last year. And two others, the Jets' Mark Sanchez and the Ravens' Joe Flacco, were each 2-0 against the Bengals as rookies.
But the Bengals do get the AFC's leading passer, San Diego's Philip Rivers, in the day-after-Christmas chill of PBS. Of course, the cold hasn't bothered Rivers much. In building an NFL-record 18 straight wins in December since 2006, Rivers has won in such brisk cities as Cleveland, Kansas City and Nashville.
The Bengals get a good break with the weather. The top passing units of the Steelers and Ravens get the Bengals at home, but in December and January, respectively. And the NFL's leading passer, the Saints' Drew Brees, could get a big breeze Dec. 5 at 1 p.m. on the river.