As the Bengals perused their first 17-game schedule that was released Wednesday night, they saw another Paul Brown Stadium opener (Vikings), their latest bye week in eight years (Nov. 14) and their latest regular-season game ever (Jan. 9) in their first all-time season finale in Cleveland.
After the bye they play five of their last eight games at PBS, headlined by back-to-back appearances of NFL MVP quarterbacks Lamar Jackson of Baltimore on Dec. 26 and Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City on Jan. 2 in 1 p.m. games.
But after the Sept. 12 opener against old friend Mike Zimmer's Vikings, they could face as many as five teams with new quarterbacks during their nine games before the bye.
One of those is in their lone prime time appearance, a star-splashed PBS Thursday nighter on Sept. 30 against Jacksonville that features the NFL Draft's last two overall No. 1 choices, the seventh time two such quarterbacks have met in PBS. The tradition began when Carson Palmer bested Dallas' Vinny Testaverde in 2004 and the most recent meeting was only last year when a last-minute touchdown pass from Cleveland's Baker Mayfield headed off Joe Burrow's Bengals rookie record 406 yards. Burrow not only tees it up against Jaguars rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but also old University of Cincinnati defensive back Urban Meyer. Meyer, who recruited Burrow to Ohio State, returns as the Jags head coach. That game's depth chart could have as many as nine players from the 2019 national championship game, when Burrow's LSU Tigers tamed the Tigers of Lawrence's Clemson club.
Just on the Bengals alone are six alums, including one of Lawrence's favorite college targets, wide receiver Tee Higgins, and the man who protected Lawrence's blindside, Bengals rookie right guard Jackson Carman. Plus, Burrow has his own college teammates in rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, rookie defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin and sophomore tight end Thaddeus Moss.
The opener, the first in PBS history against an NFC team, also has some familiar faces when Zimmer returns for the first time as a head coach in a 1 p.m. game.
During six seasons as the Bengals defensive coordinator, he guided the Bengals to four top ten finishes on two AFC North championship teams and still retreats often to his Northern Kentucky ranch. Paul Guenther, his third down guru who replaced him in 2014, also returns in his first year on Zimmer's Vikings staff.
The opener also marks the highly anticipated Bengals debuts of a pair of former Vikings. Right tackle Riley Reiff was their biggest free-agent signing on offense this offseason and cornerback Trae Waynes was one of the big free-agent takes last year on defense but never got on the field because of season-ending shoulder surgery.
They bump into another old friend the next week in Chicago on Sept. 19 in a 1 p.m. game, where quarterback Andy Dalton is expected to still be staving off first-rounder Justin Fields in the second game of the post-Mitchell Trubisky era.
The Bengals also get a team with new quarterbacks on Oct. 17 in Detroit against Jared Goff and on Oct. 31 in New York against Jets rookie Zach Wilson.
And who knows what happens on Oct. 10 in a 1 p.m. PBS game when the Packers arrive with or without Aaron Rodgers? Or when the 49ers get here on Dec. 12 in a 1 p.m. game that could be late enough in the season for rookie Trey Lance to get the nod?
But there are plenty of experienced quarterbacks around to test a re-tooled Bengals defense that has six different starters from the unit that opened the 2020 season against the Chargers.
In that eight-game stretch after the bye, they face five of the NFL's top 15 passers from last season in Mahomes, Jackson, Cleveland's Baker Mayfield, the Raiders' Derek Carr (Nov. 21 in Las Vegas) and the Chargers' Justin Herbert in a Dec. 5 PBS game at 1 p.m.
Burrow-Herbert is just as intriguing as Burrow-Lawrence. Before Burrow injured his knee in the tenth game of last season, he and Herbert were matching yard-for-yard in the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year derby. Herbert, the sixth pick in the draft after he was named the Senior Bowl MVP coached by the Bengals staff, won it with 31 touchdown passes.
But the defense is working all year round on the run with ten games against eight of the NFL's top ten rushers.
They get four (Minnesota's Dalvin Cook, Chicago's and Mount Healthy's David Montgomery, Jacksonville's James Robinson and Green Bay's Aaron Jones) in the first five games. It begins with Cook and ends with their second game against Cleveland's Nick Chubb. They also get two chances against Baltimore's Jackson and one shot each against the Raiders' Josh Jacobs and Denver's Melvin Gordon.
The Bengals have a pretty even keel schedule. For the first time since 2011 they don't have a Sunday night or Monday night game and have 14 kickoffs at 1 p.m. although that may change as it did in 2018 when they got flexed into a Sunday night game against Mahomes. Along with the 8:20 p.m. Thursday night start, they have 4:05 p.m., kickoffs in their first Vegas game and a Dec. 19 game in Denver.
And it's the first time they've had back-to-back Opening Days at PBS in 18 years.
The longest flight in a three-week road trip is the two-hour hop to New York for the Oct. 31 game against the Jets. The two weeks before that they're barely on the plane for an hour to Detroit and Baltimore.
In return they get three straight at home against the Steelers, Chargers and 49ers Nov. 28-Dec. 12. That's the first three game homestand and trip since 2017. Their longest trip is to Vegas and that comes after the bye week.
See the Bengals 2021 regular season schedule in photos.