Looking ahead to 2023, you can't help but appreciate the efforts that the 2021 and 2022 Cincinnati Bengals put forward to get to the Super Bowl and AFC Championship game in back-to-back years.
A look at the schedule for the last two years and you will see that a few games were responsible for the momentum to get them to the promised land. Games like the regular season win against Kansas City in 2021 to clinch the division launched a young underdog team to the Super Bowl.
Last year, a game as innocuous as a 42-14 blowout home win against Carolina reestablished the momentum that was lost with a brutal 32-13 loss on Halloween in Cleveland. That game launched an eight-game win streak that got them on the precipice of the Super Bowl once more.
For 2023, we are taking a way-too-early look at the teams on the 2023 schedule to see what could be the pivotal games on the schedule that launch the Bengals back to the Super Bowl.
First matchup vs Steelers
Surprisingly a Pittsburgh team with a young Kenny Pickett and a dominating defense was able to win seven of their final nine games. With a quarterback on a rookie contract, some help from free agency, and another draft the Steelers are back on the upswing. Showing them who is boss in the AFC North will set the tone for the rest of the division.
If the game is played early in the season as it has been lately, the Bengals will have their new look safeties and a recovering Chidobe Awuzie tested by a rising George Pickens. Pickens, who had four catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in the last game against the stripes, is a favorite target of Pickett and has an attitude to boot. He was ejected in the last game for a dirty hit against Tyler Boyd.
The defense led by All-World OLB T.J. Watt has been a thorn in the Bengals' side. A rusty Joe Burrow led the Bengals' offense to five turnovers in the first game last year. That loss cost the Bengals home field in the AFC Championship game last year.
Watt routinely pulls off amazing interceptions on Burrow at the line of scrimmage doing it twice last year. Showing that the 2023 version of the offense can put up points against a tough Steelers defense will be key to establishing the tone for what is shaping up as the toughest defensive division in football.
This game will be a tone-setter for 2023. If the Bengals can come in, flex their muscles and show they are still the class of the AFC North then the rest of the division will take note. Showing that the previous big brother, little brother relationship is now flipped will be a key to a 2023 run to the Super Bowl.
Bully the Steelers and the rest of the AFC North will get the message.