GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 18: Runningback Beanie Wells #26 (C) of the Arizona Cardinals rushes the football after a hand off from quarterback John Skelton #19 during the NFL game against the Cleveland Browns at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Browns 20-17 in overtime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Bengals beat the Rams. They completed step one of a three-step process that may be able to propel them into the playoffs to cap off a season in which we all thought they would win less than eight games. Now they have to move on to step two, which is to beat the Cardinals at home on Christmas Eve.
If this were two months ago, I would have said, "No problem, the Bengals can take the Cardinals any day at any time." This isn't two months ago, though. This is now and now, the Cardinals have won six of their last seven games. They've beaten some tough teams. They beat the 49ers and the Cowboys in back-to-back weeks and now they travel to Cincinnati riding a three-game winning streak.
That's not all, though. They're 7-7 now, which means that they're in the mix for the NFC wild card race. The two teams that hold the fifth and sixth seeds in the NFC are the Falcons and the Lions, who both have 9-5 records. It may be unlikely for a 7-7 team to make it in the playoffs, but now that they're considered in the hunt they can smell the blood in the water and that's going to make them tougher to beat.
The worst possible thing that the Bengals could in Week 16 would be to think about the Ravens looming in Week 17. True, the Ravens are the better team but the Bengals need to focus on the Cardinals if they want to complete step two. The Cardinals have the league's 22nd-ranked offense and 20th-ranked defense but in the last seven weeks they've played much better than their stats say they have. For example, six of the Cardinals' seven wins came from fourth-quarter comebacks. That's the second most in league history behind the Colts in 2009.
If I were asked my honest opinion, I would say that the Bengals, from top to bottom, are the better team. Their defense is better and their quarterback is having a better year when it comes to stats and overall consistency. The Cardinals' Beanie Wells has more yards and a better yards per carry average than Cedric Benson does, though, and Larry Fitzgerald has about 150 more yards than A.J. Green does at this point in the season.
There are things that the Cardinals can do well and if the Bengals allow them to do those things well on Saturday they may have an uphill battle to fight.
In the end, if the Bengals think that this is going to be an easy game to win, they could be sorely mistaken. If they make the same mistakes that they made in St. Louis against the Rams, the Cardinals could ruin the Bengals' playoff hopes. They need to be almost perfect.
Of course the Bengals are in the hunt as well and any team that underestimates them at this point would be making a big mistake. The Cardinals would need to win out to have a shot at the playoffs as well and if they focus on their final game, which is home against a Seattle Seahawks team which has exploded lately, winning four of their last five games, the Bengals would end the Cardinals playoff hopes.
Either way, one teams season will be over after the game ends on Saturday. Hopefully the Bengals aren't that team.