Bengals’ 2021 schedule: 5 things to know about first-ever 17-game slate

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) breaks free from Cleveland Browns cornerback Terrance Mitchell (39) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) breaks free from Cleveland Browns cornerback Terrance Mitchell (39) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Cincinnati Bengals’ 2021 schedule is highlighted by a home game in the opener, high-profile quarterback matchups, an appearance on Thursday Night Football and an extra contest at Paul Brown Stadium, thanks to the league moving to a 17-game slate.

Cincinnati announced its schedule Wednesday night, along with the rest of the league, and the season begins at home Sept. 12 against the Minnesota Vikings.

Quarterback Joe Burrow remains on track to be ready for the start of his second season, coming back from December knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL, and he’ll attempt to go toe-to-toe with the league’s best quarterbacks in some intriguing matchups.

Here are five storylines of note from the Bengals’ 2021 slate:

1. Second straight opener at home

The Bengals opened at home last year for just the second time since 2009, and now they kick things off at Paul Brown Stadium for a second straight season, as they host the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1.

It’s a matchup that hasn’t occurred since 2017 when the Bengals lost 34-7 on the road, but there is plenty of familiarity between the teams.

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Former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (2008-13) will return to Cincinnati in a regular-season game for the first time since he became the Vikings head coach. He brings with him another former Bengals defensive coordinator in assistant Paul Guenther, and to add perhaps more intrigue, the game will feature Joe Burrow’s top two targets from the 2019 national championship team at LSU -- new Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Vikings second-year receiver Justin Jefferson.

Cincinnati has two former Vikings starters in cornerback Trae Waynes and right tackle Riley Reiff, and former Bengals slot corner Mackenzie Alexander is back with the Vikings. Waynes could match up with Jefferson, who had a rookie-leading 1,400 yards receiving last year.

2. High-profile quarterbacks

Bengals fans will see some high-profile quarterbacks at Paul Brown Stadium this season.

The last three league MVPs come to town, starting with Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rogers (assuming he stays) on Oct. 10, followed by Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson on Dec. 26 and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes on Jan. 2 in 1 p.m. games.

A home game against Jacksonville on Sept. 30 – an appearance on Thursday Night Football – also will feature the last two No. 1 overall draft picks in Burrow (2020) and Jaguars’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence (2021). That one will be a quarterback rematch of the national championship to conclude the 2019 college season, which Burrow won with LSU.

In all, five of the last six No. 1 overall draft picks are on the schedule, including Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (2018), Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (2017) and new Lions quarterback Jared Goff (2016).

Burrow also gets a chance to face Justin Herbert for the first time since he took over as Chargers quarterback after the teams met in the opener last year. Herbert ran away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award after Burrow suffered his season-ending knee injury in Game 10.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

3. Tough strength of schedule

CBSSports.com ranked the Bengals’ schedule in a tie for the sixth most difficult. Their opponents recorded a combined record of 144-128 in 2020 for a .529 winning percentage.

The Steelers face the toughest schedule against opponents that combined for a 155-115-2 record (.574 winning percentage), followed in strength of schedule rankings by the Ravens, Bears. Packers and Vikings.

Perhaps the biggest matchup on Cincinnati’s schedule is the Jan. 2 game against the Chiefs, a chance for Burrow to try to outplay Mahomes – one of three quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl before age 25.

4. Something to prove in the AFC North

The Bengals won one AFC North game last year, but came close in two others and will be looking to be more competitive in the division in Burrow’s second season.

Cincinnati ended an 11-game losing streak against the Steelers the last time the two teams met – on Monday Night Football with Ryan Finlay at quarterback – but now in Week 3 seeks its first win in Pittsburgh since 2015. The Bengals have just two wins in the Steel City since 2010.

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Both matchups against the Browns were close last year, as Cincinnati lost 35-30 on the road and 37-34 at home within the first seven weeks. When the Bengals host the first Battle of Ohio meeting in 2021 in Week 9, they will be looking to reverse their misfortunes. The teams meet again in the finale Jan. 9 in Cleveland.

Baltimore won both matchups last year by 24 points or more, so the Bengals also seek to be more competitive in those games Oct. 24 (on the road) and Dec. 26 (at home).

5. Home for the holidays

The Bengals don’t have their bye until Week 10, but when they return to the field, five of the last eight games are at home and they only leave town once between Nov. 22 and Jan. 8. The lone road game in that stretch is at Denver on Dec. 19, so the team will be home for the major holidays.

A first-ever trip to Las Vegas kicks off the second half of the season after the bye, a Nov. 21 game against the Raiders that many fans might be eying as a potential road game to attend ahead of Thanksgiving.

Although it’s a nice stretch of games at home late in the season, the Bengals do face some tough opponents. They close the schedule facing three straight games against playoffs teams from last year (Baltimore, Kansas City and Cleveland).

The front half of the schedule might be more favorable in terms of competition. Four of the first eight opponents finished under .500 last year and three of them changed coaches this year – the Jets, Lions and Jaguars.

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