The Cincinnati Bengals will find out who they open the 2018 season against — and where — at 8 p.m. Thursday when the NFL announces its regular-season schedule.
The Bengals already know who their 16 opponents will be. They will face Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Denver, Oakland, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Miami at home, and Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Carolina, Atlanta, Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Chargers on the road.
But Thursday night they’ll find out the dates and start times for each game, along with the preseason dates and times after the opponents were announced last week.
Here are five predictions for what the Bengals 2018 schedule will look like:
The Bengals made a request to open at home for their 50th season last year after seven consecutive road openers, and the league acquiesced, but they’ll be traveling in Week 1 again this year.
The Reds play at home on kickoff Sunday, Sept. 8, and only once since Great American Ball Park opened have both of Cincinnati’s pro teams played at home the same day because of the close proximity of the stadiums and their shared parking areas.
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The only time it happened was in 2010 when the Reds were in playoffs, something the NFL schedule makers could not have foreseen.
The Reds also are home Monday, Sept. 8, although that is probably moot as it’s doubtful the league would stick a Bengals team coming off a 7-9 campaign on Monday Night Football to start the season.
With the Bengals opening on the road, it automatically reduces the list of possible Week 1 opponents to eight.
But we can pare the list farther based on a couple of other factors. First, there are other cities on the schedule that make every attempt to avoid MLB and NFL home games the same day, although Pittsburgh is the only one affected with the Pirates playing at home Sept. 8. Plus, never in franchise history have the Bengals played the Steelers in Week 1.
Another team you can scratch off is Indianapolis because the Bengals play the Colts in the preseason finale, making it unlikely the league would pit them against each other on back-to-back weeks.
That leaves six options – Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers, Carolina and Atlanta.
The Bengals have opened against an NFC opponent just once since 1997 (Chicago, 2013). You can’t completely rule out the Panthers and Falcons because of that, but odds are the Week 1 opponent will be the Ravens, Browns, Chiefs or Chargers.
The Bengals have opened against Baltimore three times in the last six years. Don’t be surprised if it becomes four out of seven.
There will be 51 primetime games scheduled – three each in Weeks 2-14, four in Weeks 1, 15 and 16 and none in Week 17 (the final Sunday night game opponents will not be announced until seven days before).
That means there are 102 primetime spots for 32 teams, which averages out to about three appearances per franchise.
Obviously some teams – Eagles, Patriots, Packers and Steelers to name a few – will play more than three while others will play less, but the Bengals, as an average, 7-9 team last year, should fall on the average of three.
Every team plays on Thursday night once, so that’s one appearance.
A late-season Sunday night game also is likely, because it would give the NFL the ability to flex out of it should the Bengals season go south.
And given the Bengals have appeared on Monday Night Football every year since 2012, you can probably expect another appearance in 2018.
Front or back?
The NFL tends to either front load or back load each team’s schedule with division opponents.
For the Bengals, it’s usually the back end, although they only played one of their four December games against the AFC North last year (Baltimore, Week 17).
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Here is a look at the divisional games down the stretch for the five previous years:
2016 (three of final four)
2015 (three of final five)
2014 (three of final four)
2013 (two of final three)
2012 (final two)
And here are the divisional games to start a season.
2017 (two of first four; three of first six)
2016 (one of first six)
2015 (one of first six)
2014 (one of first six)
2013 (two of first eight)
2012 (first two, four of first seven)
Even with computer assistance, the task of building the entire NFL schedule has to be a complicated, time-consuming process with dozens of moving parts.
So who knows if the league would try to further punish Vontaze Burfict, who is suspended for the first four games, and the Bengals by front loading the schedule with division games.
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What we do know is the NFL loves TV ratings, and the league has known since December Burfict would miss the first four games. So if there is a Bengals-Steelers game – in primetime, perhaps – scheduled for Burfict’s Week 5 return, it shouldn’t be considered a coincidence.