Second half opens

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                           First half MVP Mohamed Sanu.

The Bengals have seven games left, but the second half of the season truly starts Monday. Never has there been such a red line across their schedule, even separated by one of those rare off weekends.

 The first half of six home games, the home-and-home blood feud with Baltimore, and the three-game homestand are done at 5-3-1. The second half of the Valley Forge slog of five road games in the final seven weeks, the home-and-home-come-to-the-mountain with the Steelers within 21 days of December, and the prime date with Peyton start with Sunday's visit to New Orleans.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis faces one of the more daunting assignments of his career when his team gathers on Monday for the first time since Thursday's 24-3 meltdown against Cleveland.  With everyone  under fire for another prime-time implosion that feels like an end-of-season disaster rather than a mid-season challenge, Lewis has to get his team to understand they're still in the middle of the tightest AFC playoff race in recent memory and within a half-game of defending their AFC North title.

After two of the worst games in his 12 seasons coming within 18 days (the three-and-out 27-0 loss in Indy and Thursday's 2.0 outing), it sure doesn't feel that way. But the numbers, as awkward as they are at 5-3-1, suggest they are more than alive in this season of anything goes.

If the NFL gods had come to you on April 1 and said that on Nov. 10 with seven games left the Bengals have one fewer loss than Pittsburgh and Baltimore, have the best record in the division, trail only Cleveland in the AFC North and start the second half of the season with a three-game road trip against teams with losing records, would you take it?

Probably.

But if they had visited May 1, probably not, because by then you would have seen a schedule fraught with trouble.  As they start to get their limping players back for the stretch run, injuries aren't their biggest problem. It is the schedule.

At the moment, there are five teams with at least five wins that don't lead their division: the Bengals, the Bills, the Dolphins, the Chiefs, and Chargers. Plus, all three teams in their division have one more win than them with six.

Not only that, of those eight teams the 6-4 Ravens and 6-4 Steelers have the easiest schedules. Baltimore at 25-30 and Pittsburgh at 25-27-1 have the only set of foes left that have a combined losing record. Which, like everything else in this league, changes week-to-week:

Baltimore (6-4) 25-30; Pittsburgh (6-4) 25-27-1; Miami (5-4) 33-33; Kansas City (6-3) 32-32 Cleveland (6-3) 32-30-1; Buffalo (5-4) 32-31; Cincinnati (5-3-1) 34-31; San Diego (5-4) 34-30

And don't you have to make the Ravens the favorite to win the division? They're off this week and after following the Bengals into New Orleans for a Monday night game, they finish at home with San Diego, on the road to the Dolphins, host Jacksonville, go to Houston and finish at home to Cleveland.

In this season of The Tie, it is fitting the Bengals are half a game out of having the toughest sked at 34-31, ahead of only San Diego at 34-30. The Chargers don't look like they'll be around to harass the Bengals if they can make it the playoffs. Not with back-to-back home games against New England and Denver before finishing the season in San Francisco and Kansas City.

The Steelers had their Cleveland moment on Sunday with that ugly and totally unexpected loss to the Jets. But they get their bye Nov. 23 after what should be walk-over in Tennessee next Monday night, along with finishing the season at home against the Chiefs and Bengals.

The Browns don't have any weeks off since they shared that Sept. 28 open date with the Bengals, which now looks like the worst bye in Cincinnati history given what has transpired since that 3-0 start. Cleveland doesn't have easy home games (Texans, Bengals, Colts) and they do finish in Baltimore. And the road isn't a day at the beach with visits to Atlanta, Buffalo, and Carolina.

Talk about controlling your own destiny.

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