We already know the Bengals are hot.
Now the Bengals find out if they are even hotter when the NFL schedule is released Thursday amid buzz they are a network magnet for primetime games.
Mike North, the NFL's vice president for broadcasting, planning and scheduling who must also dabble in crystal balls and games of chance, thinks they may be even record-breaking hot.
"If I had to bet right now," North says, "I would expect the maximum number of primetime games for the Bengals. "I'd expect them to be on five times with any combination of Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday night games."
Don't write that in just yet. There are no guarantees as the NFL puts together this 272-block Ouija board, a space for each game the league views as an "asset." Even as North spoke this past weekend with the release looming, there were still flagged emails flying into his in-box with new proposals.
If they did reach five in primetime, that would break the club record of four set in four different seasons, 1990, 2007, 2014 and 2015. But North's idea of primetime is flexible. Especially when he looks back fondly on last year's streaming-scripted Paul Brown Stadium thriller when the Bengals won the AFC North at the gun against the two-time AFC champion Chiefs played in the relative perceived privacy of 1 p.m. He wonders what a 4:25 start would have netted.
Usually, North says, an early regional game like that figures to draw a number like 15 or 20 percent of the country. But not with a fresh, new-look team like the Bengals with the fantasy numbers of Burrow and rookie sensation wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
"CBS was able to move some stuff around and increase the footprint," North says. "I think it got up to be 60 percent of the country and it turned out to be an almost statement game from the Bengals. 'Don't believe our record? Watch this.'
"Everybody took them seriously from there and obviously they made a run all the way to February and that's going to carry over to next year."
Everybody wants to know. Opening weekend vs. the Chiefs? Thanksgiving in Dallas? Christmas in Tampa Bay?
All North knows is, yes, the Bengals are hot.
"It's not a question of, 'Hey, do the fans know who the Bengals are?' It's a question of, 'Is there anything better than a Bengals game in one of these big national windows?'" North says.
"There's an awful lot of Cincinnati games on our (networks) request lists this year," North says. "You just look at the schedule. They play Buffalo and Kansas City and Tampa Bay and Dallas and those games, no one is hesitating at all. Not only to ask for those games, but really kind of hoping and expecting those games to be in national windows."
The Bengals at Tampa Bay game has the irresistible lure of what could be the first, last and only meeting between Joe Burrow and Tom Brady, two of the NFL's more charismatic quarterbacks in a gaping generation gap. It's quite the chip in a year the NFL has opted to stream for the first time for the entire season with Thursday night games appearing only on Amazon Prime.
"That's a game that screams for national television. That game has to be a Sunday afternoon at 4:25, a Sunday night game, a Monday night game, a Thursday night game," North says. "If you're talking about Amazon becoming a streaming partner and asking our fans for the first time in 40 years to go find a new broadcast outlet for one of our games, the only way we're going to get them to acknowledge the new partner and the effort to find it is if we put the really good content there.
"You put a Bengals-Tampa game on Thursday Night Football, fans will go find Amazon Prime."
But, Bengals-Bucs could be a Sunday or Monday, too, as the NFL tries to put together this jigsaw puzzle both via hardware and software; ingenuity and gut. North says it's not only who goes prime, but when?
Do they go with Cincy-Tampa early in the season to ensure that most everybody is healthy riding the MoJo of last year? Or do they wait and hold the card until a do-or-die December game in what could be a Super Bowl preview? But what if one or both has already clinched?
But as North gleefully looks at the AFC parity and a string of young, swashbucklers at quarterbacks, he's not sure they have to go out of conference or stay in the AFC North for those playoff-like games.
"It's hard to envision a season where Buffalo, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Kansas City aren't playing for something in December," North says. "Those all sound like late season primetime windows. They're sure to have playoff implications. And maybe that's a better mix and you're able to save a Cincinnati AFC North game for the final weekend when it's all division games."
The emails may still be flying as Thursday beckons, but one thing seems certain. There are going to be a lot of late nights in Bengaldom in 2022.
"When you do go play a Kansas City, when you do go play a Tampa, when you do go play a Dallas, that game can't be Sunday at 1 p.m. available to 14 percent of the county," North says. "That's not the NFL utilizing their best assets for their fans. We have to make sure those games find their way in the bigger television windows where everybody can get to them."