Road map to 10

Posted: 8:50 a.m.

Now that the roster is set, how does the schedule look? A quick look at how the Bengals can get to 10-6:

SEPT 13 vs. DENVER:  Home opener against a team with a new coach, banged-up quarterback, and buffeted by a diva wide receiver. So it's almost a must game right out of the gate for the Bengals. After getting rocked by a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback in Baltimore in last season's opener, the Bengals can't let that happen again to a rookie head coach and new quarterback. Openers set tones and that was ugly enough for 4-11-1.

But this one is at home and even though they haven't had Carson Palmer (ankle) for the last three weeks, the Bengals are a different team than the one that went to Baltimore. They've had everybody in camp with the same running backs, receivers and offensive line on the field since May.

Not only do the Broncos have a 33-year-old head coach, but they have a new 3-4 defense and that may help the Bengals try to get their running game off the ground.

So does Marvin Lewis avenge his only home-opening loss to Mike Shanahan's Broncos in 2003? Yes. W, 1-0.

SEPT. 20 at Green Bay: The Bengals get another team switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, only this time Lewis is looking at a scene from This Is Your Life. Lewis worked under Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers in Pittsburgh, where Green Bay linebackers coach Kevin Greene played for him.

The Packers are legendary at Lambeau, the savvy Capers will have them pressuring, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back Ryan Grant are two of the more dangerous players in the NFL. The game is 17 years to the day someone named Brett Favre came off the bench at Lambeau to beat the Bengals. Rodgers will go all the way in this one. L, 1-1.

SEPT. 27 vs. PITTSBURGH: Could very well be the crossroads game of the season. The game is sold out and a win goes a long way in generating sellouts for the rest of the year. And the Bengals have been here before. In the third game of 2006 they went on the road to beat the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers, their last win over Pittsburgh.

One thing about this Bengals team: They've got some guys who have mixed it up with the Steelers. Last season running back Cedric Benson took off safety Troy Polamalu's helmet and safety Chris Crocker knocked out receiver Santonio Holmes. Plus, in that '06 game Palmer threw two TDs to wide receiver Chris Henry.

With their new emphasis on pressuring the quarterback, the Bengals have to take advantage of Ben Roethlisberger's inconsistent pass protection and finally get him on the ground.

And there must be something said about the law of averages. In his eighth try, Lewis, the Pittsburgh kid, beats the Steelers at home. W, 2-1.

OCT. 4 at Cleveland: In the only game Palmer has lost in his last seven against the Browns, he threw six touchdown passes. The Browns were 28th in defense last year, and Benson had his best game against Cleveland with 171 yards. W, 3-1.

OCT. 11 at Baltimore: The Bengals see a new kind of defense with Rex Ryan now coaching the Jets. New coordinator Greg Mattison is a bit more orthodox and is supposedly going to use more 4-3 looks. But while the Ravens adjust to life without Ryan, the Bengals pass-protection has to adjust to life without tight end Reggie Kelly. Even in the best of times, the Bengals have it tough in Baltimore. L, 3-2.

OCT. 18 vs. HOUSTON: This is the same Texans offense that pummeled the Bengals in Houston last year, 35-6. A great receiver in Andre Johnson, a tough back in Steve Slaton, a Bengals-killer QB in Matt Schaub dating back to his preseason days in Atlanta, and will they be able to block Mario Williams?

But the Bengals defense is better and the Houston defense (ranked 22nd against the pass) played them without Palmer and with Benson just a month off the street. Plus, the Texans come to Cincy a week after they play in Arizona and after playing three of their first four games at home. With Palmer and Schaub and The Ocho and The Andre, this has all the makings of a Boomer Esiason-Warren Moon shootout. L, 3-3.

OCT. 25 vs. CHICAGO: We'll give this one to Benson in the matchup with his old team that cut him before the 2008 season. If the Bears can find some receivers for new quarterback Jay Cutler and the defense gets back to at least being the Maulers of the Midway (they were 30th against the run last season), then the Bears will be extremely formidable. But until then, the Bengals offense has the edge on a Chicago offense that finished 24th last season and has a No. 1 receiver (Devin Hester) who has had a more accomplished career as a punt returner. W, 4-3.

NOV. 8 vs. BALTIMORE: The Bengals come off a bye while the Ravens come off a home game against the Broncos. After last month's look at the new defense Palmer should be ready to come out firing and the backs and tight ends should be more comfortable picking up the blitz. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has had a solid preseason, is going to get matched one-on-one with Terrell Suggs. He should be able to hold his own, but the other guys have to block some hugely talented people, like Jarret Johnson and Haloti Ngata.

Look for the defense to stake the Bengals claim to the playoff chase. This is a game Mike Zimmer's guys have to control and it will be easier to do at home. W, 5-3.   

NOV. 15 at Pittsburgh: After the bloodbath against Baltimore, the Bengals get the Steelers on a short week because Pittsburgh is at Denver on a Monday night. But it is still on the road in the most hostile of places and the Steelers do have 19 of 22 starters back from a Super Bowl team. L, 5-4

NOV. 22 at Oakland: The Bengals can pay the Raiders back in person for the Darrius Heyward-Bey deal. The Bengals have never won in Oakland and the Raiders have a bye and a home game against the Chiefs before the Bengals drag to the coast after the scrum with the Steelers. But who knows what kind of shape the Raiders will be in by this time? W, 6-4

NOV. 29 vs. CLEVELAND: The Browns have had pretty good luck at PBS against QBs not named Palmer. They beat Jon Kitna there in 2003 and Ryan Fitzpatrick there in 2008. But Palmer is 4-0 at home against Cleveland in between and it looks like the Browns offense is going to struggle to keep pace scoring as it looks for receivers and backs. W, 7-4.

DEC. 6 VS. DETROIT: A mentor-disciple showdown with new Lions coach Jim Schwartz teeing it up with his old boss, Lewis. The Lions will be better after Schwartz's relentless house cleaning and rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford should have his legs under him by the time this game rolls around. But he should have trouble against a potential top 10 defense on the road and out of their new crew on defense of Larry Foote, Grady Jackson, Julian Peterson, Anthony Henry and Phillip Buchanon, who is strong enough to take the Lions from last in the league on defense? W, 8-4.

DEC. 13 at Minnesota: The Bengals have never beaten Brett Favre on the road and they've never won in Minnesota. Even before getting to Adrian Peterson, the Vikes are formidable on defense with a great front four and two tough cornerbacks in Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin. L, 8-5

DEC. 20 at San Diego: The Bengals have won there, including the last trip in '03 under Lewis, but the West Coast has never been kind to Cincinnati. They're 5-9 in San Diego, but a 2006 home loss to Chargers is the most galling. The Bengals had a 28-7 halftime lead on the most talented team in football and gave up 42 second-half points to lose at PBS. They hold the Chargers one time in the second half, and they go to the playoffs because that was the year the Bengals missed out by a game.

Give the home-field edge to the Chargers, but the Bengals have to believe they can play with them. L, 8-6.

DEC. 27 vs. KANSAS CITY: The Chiefs look to be in as much disarray as when they were here last, which was the same week last year. It should be a wedding party matchup with Palmer vs. good friend Matt Cassel. But Cassel has a gimpy knee, he's on a new team, he's got a new head coach and had two new offensive coordinators.

Plus, Lewis' teams play well at home in December (8-4), when they haven't lost since the OT debacle to Pittsburgh on the last day of '06. W, 9-6.

JAN. 3 at the Jets: In the last 15 seasons the Bengals have closed out The Astrodome, Cleveland Stadium, Cinergy Field and now they'll shut down The Meadowlands/Giants Stadium/Hoffa Shrine. It would be nice to go out with a win, which they've never done there in a 10-game stretch over 25 years that began with a 43-23 loss to the Jets on Sept. 16, 1984.

Palmer should win his second straight showdown against a USC quarterback in Mark Sanchez. Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, now the Jets head coach, will do great things with this defense and it will be a road slugfest.

But if the Bengals are worthy of the playoffs, they'll beat a rookie QB and rookie head coach on the road in the last game of the year. This will then officially exorcise the demons of '08 when they couldn't do it to start the season. W, 10-6

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