CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals have finally arrived at the part of the season that actually matters.
That's not to say the first nine games of the 2020 campaign were completely irrelevant. The 2-6-1 Bengals have already matched their win total from last season and are starting to build a foundation with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow.
But starting with Sunday's game against Washington (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Cincinnati will have a chance to show exactly where things stand in its rebuilding process under second-year coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals have the ninth-weakest remaining strength of schedule, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. Four opponents, including three from the lowly NFC East, have a .300 winning percentage or lower.
Cincinnati will have plenty of opportunities to gauge itself against similar teams and potentially build toward a pivotal 2021 season.
On Monday, Taylor narrowed the scope of the task at hand.
"It's important just to get this next victory and build off that momentum," he said after a resounding 36-10 loss to the Steelers on Sunday.
While every victory is obviously welcomed, the context surrounding the franchise makes the need for success down the stretch even more imperative.
In 2019, it was clear the Bengals were in dire need of a complete rebuild. Cincinnati finished with the NFL's worst record for the first time since 2002, a result that landed them the top overall pick in April's draft and the right to select Burrow.
The rebuilding process yielded more than a new quarterback. It produced a front office that uncharacteristically spent big money in free agency and carried an aggressive approach into the season, which resulted in notable waiver acquisitions (Quinton Spain, Takk McKinley) and a trade of a disgruntled Carlos Dunlap, the franchise's all-time leader in sacks.
All of that, however, has not drastically changed the results. The two high-profile free agents, cornerback Trae Waynes and defensive tackle D.J. Reader, are on injured reserve. Spain has boosted a depleted offensive line and McKinley was waived on Tuesday after a failed physical.
Burrow has flashed and faltered at points through his rookie year. At the midway point of the season, Burrow was on pace to break Andrew Luck's rookie record for passing yards in a single season. But against Pittsburgh on Sunday, he completed just two throws of 10 air yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and struggled against a quality defense.
Burrow said he was excited to shake off the rough outing.
"I'm not too down in the dumps because I know I'm not going to play like that very often," Burrow said. "I might play like that hopefully never again -- maybe once a year."
The rest of the season is as much about Burrow as it is the Bengals as a whole. During the final seven games, he'll get a chance to test himself against this year's No. 2 overall pick (Washington defensive end Chase Young), his predecessor in Cincinnati (Dallas quarterback Andy Dalton), a former SEC rival and fellow rookie (Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa) and the Steelers and Ravens, who flummoxed Burrow once already this season.
When the season started, everything was geared toward setting the foundation for the franchise's future. That included Burrow making a successful transition and adapting to the NFL despite the challenges presented by COVID-19.
But that also encompasses making enough progress in 2020 to show that the Bengals are getting closer to pushing for their first playoff berth since 2015. On Sunday, the Bengals have a chance to pick up their first road victory under Taylor and regain the short-term momentum they had after a big home win over the Titans in Week 8.
"Now we're back to restarting that," Bengals safety Jessie Bates said. "Our goal is to go 1-0 next week against Washington. It'll be our first road win, for sure."
If that happens, it will be a big result for a team that is about to find out exactly where it stands in its quest to be truly competitive.
"We're working really hard within the building to get these wins," Burrow said. "We want to deliver it to the fans."