Will the Bengals return to winning football in 2017? Which game on the schedule could prove to be the make-or-break matchup? Sports Illustrated serves up its projections in response to those two questions.

The Cincinnati Bengals’ 6-9-1 record from 2016 offered a reality check for a team that had made the playoffs for five straight seasons. After notching the No. 9 overall selection in the NFL Draft and attempting to improve this offseason, it remains to be seen whether the Bengals have done enough to get back into playoff contention in 2017.

Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones predicted each NFL team’s 2017 win-loss record and gave the Bengals a winning record and shot at the playoffs. Before we get to what he said about the Bengals, here’s a look at how he went about making his predictions.

In my first year of picking all 256 games for SI.com, I learned just how difficult it is to predict the future, and I reserve the right to be wrong. I made these picks with a few universal truths in mind before dissecting the schedule: I believe the Patriots, Steelers and Packers are among the best teams in the NFL, and that they will profit from weaker divisions from top to bottom. They are the only teams I could give at least 12 wins.

Here’s what Jones had to say specifically about the Bengals in 2017 and how the season could play out:

Projected record: 9–7

Here’s another AFC North team with a coach who could be on the hot seat. Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL today, but he won’t be able to afford missing the playoffs in consecutive years on top of five years of wild-card futility. The Bengals caught some tough breaks last season by losing seven of nine by a possession. Starting the season against Baltimore, Houston, Green Bay, Cleveland and Buffalo could give the Bengals a 4–1 start going into their bye.

Pivotal game: Week 17 at Ravens. This game could decide who gets a wild card and who stays home. Both the Bengals and Ravens will have to deal with a competitive AFC West, so nine wins may not cut it for a wild-card berth.

The Steelers are projected at 12-4, the Ravens 9-7 and the Browns 2-14. And as for the other team Jones refers to as having a coach on the hot seat in the AFC North, that’s Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.

Regarding his Bengals projection, I think expecting Cincinnati to win three more games than they did in 2016 is fair. The team lost seven games by one possession and an eighth game ended in a tie. With a new kicker, added speed and athleticism and a healthy roster, the Bengals could certainly win three more games this season and return to playoff contention. If the Bengals fail to make the playoffs for the second year in a row, maybe Lewis’ reign in Cincinnati will truly be over.

If the Bengals get off to a strong start and go 4-1 ahead of the bye, which I do believe the team is capable of doing, we could be in for an exciting season of Bengals football.

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