The Cincinnati Bengals are coming off a 6-9-1 season after a string of five straight playoff appearances. That's put a little more pressure on Marvin Lewis entering his 15th season as head coach, and Andy Dalton faces a challenge in leading the franchise to its first playoff victory since the 1990-91 season.
Cincinnati is also celebrating its 50th year anniversary. Will that come with a return to the playoffs?
Here's a month-by-month breakdown of the Bengals' 2017 regular-season schedule, and how we see it playing out.
NFL schedule: Can Patriots cruise to another Super Bowl?
vs. Baltimore, at Houston (TNF), at Green Bay, at Cleveland
The home opener against the Ravens should be a good barometer for where the season is headed. Cincinnati is 6-2 against Baltimore the last four seasons, and that includes win in five of the last six meetings. Houston, however, has won seven of the last eight against the Bengals. The road trip to Lambeau Field in Week 3 won't be easy, but this is still a month where Cincinnati could emerge with a 2-2 record or better.
vs. Buffalo, BYE, at Pittsburgh, vs. Indianapolis
The Bengals play their third home game in the first five weeks against the Bills. Buffalo beat Cincinnati 16-12 last season. That's a game the Bengals can't afford to lose. Cincinnati should have a good idea of where it sits in the AFC North race when it travels to face the rival Steelers.
at Jacksonville, at Tennessee, at Denver, vs. Cleveland
Cincinnati needs to go 3-1 in November in order to have any postseason hopes. That means winning on the road against Jacksonville and Tennessee and taking their best shot at Denver, then returning home and beating the in-state rival Browns. That would set Cincinnati up for an interesting November.
vs. Pittsburgh (MNF), vs. Chicago, at Minnesota, vs. Detroit, at Baltimore
Three home games is the good news, but late-season trips to Minnesota and Baltimore aren't exactly easy. The second prime-time game against the Steelers will be heated as usual, but this AFC North and NFC North tour is something Cincinnati could negotiate if they are still in the hunt. Keep in mind Lewis is 10-2 against the NFC North. That's a good sign with the late-season games against the Bears, Vikings and Lions.
Record prediction: 8-8
That's a conservative approach, because we think with this schedule the Bengals can put up a winning record if they can take care of business against the Ravens. If Cincinnati can emerge from the first two months with an above .500 record, then a return to the playoffs is a possibility. Of course, the Bengals must address the free agency losses on the offensive line and show that last year's record was the exception to what has been a steady run of success.