No matter how easy a team may make it look, winning an NFL game is hard work. No contest is easy, regardless of the opponent's win-loss record. However, a glance at any team's schedule makes it clear right away which string of games is likely to be the most troublesome. For the Cincinnati Bengals, it comes at the close of the upcoming season.
In the crucial Weeks 15 through 17 stretch, when the Bengals will likely be embroiled in a battle to either come out on top in the highly competitive AFC North or at least secure themselves another Wild Card playoff berth, the team faces three heavy opponents.
First, in Week 15, the Bengals travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles—a team that, at least on paper, looks to be drastically improved from the 8-8 squad they were last year. With a full season to gel and some extremely brutal defensive additions brought in via the draft, the Eagles are primed to be a very scary opponent.
The Eagles were a top-10 offense last season and, according to Football Outsiders, had the 12th-best defense. This season, the former should stay about the same, while the latter is likely to improve. While the Eagles aren't even a conference opponent, this road contest will be difficult and, depending on outcome, could set the tone for the two more important games that follow.
In Week 16, the Bengals travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. The Steelers have generally dominated the Bengals over the years. But to their credit, they have fared better when taking them on in Pittsburgh, which is a level of cold comfort heading into this game.
Both the Bengals and the Steelers are likely to be fighting for their playoff lives, making this game important for both teams and also extremely tense. Without getting all-important divisional wins, the playoffs could slip out of the Bengals' hands this year—and that goes double if they drop their Week 7 home contest against Pittsburgh.
But the divisional test doesn't end in Week 16. In the final week of the season, the Bengals close their season at home against the Baltimore Ravens, another brutal opponent and last year's AFC North champions.
Though both the Steelers and Ravens have dealt with a lot of offseason change this year, the Ravens' changes have certainly left them in a more vulnerable position than they've been in a while. However, that doesn't make them any less threatening. And in a game that could decide playoff berths, the divisional championship and postseason seeding, this may be a must-win situation for Cincinnati.
The Bengals have a closing stretch of games I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy, one that represents a very difficult path to a postseason repeat. Though the 13 games that precede these three are also extremely important, these final games are going to be the most challenging stretch the Bengals see all season.
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