After opening the Zac Taylor Era in the home of the most expensive player in the history of the NFL, the Bengals end the 2019 season with a series of riches at home featuring five of their last six games in Ohio and four of them at Paul Brown Stadium.
When the NFL released its schedule on Wednesday the league gave the Bengals an away opener for the eighth time in the nine seasons of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green in a Sept. 8 game against Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, as well as a rough road in September. Three of the first four games are away in a stretch that ends with their lone prime-time appearance of the season on ESPN's Monday Night Football in Pittsburgh on Sept. 30.
But with the 49ers as the opponent in the Sept. 15 PBS opener, Taylor, the former Rams quarterbacks coach, starts his career against two familiar NFC West teams. Last year the Rams swept Seattle and San Francisco and in 2017, when Taylor helped coach the Rams wide receivers, L.A. went 2-2.
"Two teams with similar styles of defense back-to-back," Dalton said. "(Taylor) is familiar with them after playing them the last couple of years, so that helps. You know what they're going to do. Guys have come and gone and coordinators have changed, but they play with that same style."
And for the second year in a row the Bengals get the perfect bye in the middle of the season after they play their eighth game of the year in London against those Rams on Oct. 27 and in those last eight games they get only two 2018 play-off teams. They also get some home cooking with the stretch heating up. After they play in Oakland on Nov. 17, their three longest road trips of the season are done with the only remaining date outside of Ohio on Dec. 22 in Miami. That finishing homestand is bannered by the Steelers on Nov. 24, the Super Bowl champion Patriots on Dec. 15, and a rare season finale against the Browns on Dec. 29.
"That's the thing that stands out to me," Dalton said. "All those home games late, which is always good. If we can steal that first one on the road, that's good because that sets a tone. That's what we did last year (a win in Indy) and we started hot."
Dalton has had to learn about winning openers on the road, where he's 5-2. And three of the wins began play-off seasons.
It's only the sixth time the Bengals have closed a season against their in-state rivals and all of them have been at either PBS or Riverfront Stadium. The last two had play-off implications with the Bengals clinching the 1990 AFC Central title with a 21-14 win over Cleveland that also served as Browns Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome's last game. The 2003 Bengals were trying to get to 9-7 and force the Ravens to win their last game for the division flag, but Browns running back Lee Suggs raced for 186 yards in Cleveland's 22-14 victory.
For the first time in history the Bengals play Paul Brown's other team twice in December when they meet the Browns Dec. 8 in Cleveland in a game that signifies the shifting sands of the division. The pundits are virtually handing the AFC North to a Cleveland team coming off its first sweep of the Bengals in 16 seasons. But they are also both led by first-year coaches and Taylor hopes to have Green after he missed both games last season in a series he has seven touchdown catches and is 47 yards shy of having 1,000 career yards against the Browns, his most against any team.
Taylor, 35, becomes the Bengals' seventh head coach to start a season and the fourth one to make his debut on the road, joining Paul Brown, Sam Wyche and Dave Shula. The Bengals lost their first game in history on Sept. 6, 1968 in San Diego and 16 years later Wyche lost his first game in Denver in the 1984 opener. Shula also opened in Seattle in 1992 and took home a 21-3 victory in which the Bengals cashed two fumble recoveries for touchdowns.
Taylor is getting the Green-Dalton treatment. All NFL teams have at least one nationally-televised game, but for the first time since Green and Dalton were rookies in 2011 the Bengals don't have one at home. It's also the first time since '11 they don't have more than one prime-timer. And, it's also the first time they don't have a Thursday night game at PBS in six years and the first time they don't play on Thursday night at all since that 2011 season. There are a few teams every year that miss the Thursday games. Last year it was Tampa Bay and Buffalo and this year it is Cincinnati and Miami.
But Bengals-Steelers has become a Sunday or Monday night staple. Every year from 2012-15, one of the games went national and the 2016 PBS game was scheduled for Sunday night until it was flexed out.
"Our goal this year is to surprise people," Dalton said. "It's our job to win and prove it to them. I see a lot of games here that could be flexed."