Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he doesn’t put any stock in what people say about the strength of schedule at this time of year, but in terms of how the games lined up, he was pretty pleased with what’s on tap for the 2020 season.
The Bengals open at home Sept. 13 against the L.A. Chargers, and although they play on short rest with a Thursday Night game at Cleveland in Week 2, Taylor said it’s beneficial to get that quick turnaround out of the way early when more players are still healthy. Taylor also likes finishing at home, including three of the last four games set to take place at Paul Brown Stadium.
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“We open at home, that’s great,” Taylor said in a Zoom news conference with media Friday. “We end at home, that’s great. I really only care about the first opponent. I know that the players, I think the first thing that they look at are what are the prime-time games. I’m sure they’re pretty fired up to see two divisional games (in prime time), one on the road and one at home. But we don’t get too caught up in that right now.”
CBSSports.com ranked the Bengals' schedule 27th easiest based on 2019 records of opponents – their opponents were 122-134 with a .477 win percentage – but Taylor said he doesn't view the schedule that way. Teams aren't always what people expect them to be.
Despite their 2-14 finish last year, Taylor wasn’t surprised the Bengals got two prime-time games. In addition to the Thursday Night game at Cleveland on Sept. 17, they host Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football on Dec. 21.
“There’s a lot of positive buzz around our team right now,” Taylor said.” That’s good for the fans to get caught up in and all that stuff and usually with that comes some prime-time games. But again, it’s really hard for me to look beyond the first week of the season because I know we’ve got our work cut out for us there.”
After opening at home, the Bengals play four of their next five games on the road, which will be a big test for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall draft pick. The only game at home during that stretch is against Jacksonville, which coincidentally might be the most winnable matchup in that stretch.
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As far as AFC North play, Cincinnati has all three of the rematches at home. Finishing at home also is nice, as Taylor said, but over the final four weeks, Cincinnati faces the Cowboys, Steelers, Texans and Ravens – four teams that finished .500 or better. The Ravens and Texans were playoff teams.
“It can be (beneficial finishing at home), if we take care of business the way that we need to,” Taylor said. “The key is just being consistent through all 16 games. If we’re going to have the time of the season that we say we’re going to work towards, then you’re going to have to win road games and home games however they shake out and not make excuses. … Fortunately we don’t have any long travel. We’re not going to any west coast games. That is nice to not have to deal with some of that stuff. (I’m) just excited that it’s finally here and we get a chance to make our plans.”
There is some uncertainty, though, whether the schedule will be played out as put together now because of the potential for COVID-19 pandemic delays. The league believes there is flexibility with moving games back if necessary, but preseason games appear most in jeopardy.
Taylor said the rookies especially need those four preseason games to get acclimated to the league so the Bengals are hopeful to get in their exhibition games against Kansas City, Minnesota, Atlanta and Indianapolis. As of now, the Bengals also are preparing for a full 16-game regular-season schedule.
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“That’s how we have to operate as a coaching staff, that this thing is going to go as normal and we’ll just react to whatever anybody tells us to do,” Taylor said. “The only way I know how to prepare is to prepare for a normal training camp, a normal regular season. We’re flexible. We’ll adjust to whatever they tell us to do. They made the schedule as they did and we’ll just react accordingly.”
There is a possibility games will go on as planned but in empty stadiums. In that case, playing four of five games on the road early might not be so bad, especially with a new quarterback.
“It would be interesting,” Taylor said of the possibility of empty stadiums. “It’s always fun playing in a road environment where people hate you and it’s loud. But if all of a sudden, you’re taking that away from some teams where that’s an advantage, so be it. That’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. We enjoy going on the road and playing in hostile environments. If you go on the road and there weren’t fans there, you can communicate a lot better and use all your tools that way. We’ll just see how it plays out.”