Due to the way they're playing right now, the Cincinnati Bengals have a better-than-fair shot for the postseason this year. We break down some scenarios.
BENGALS - STEELERS - RAVENS
It's far more important for the Cincinnati Bengals to beat the San Diego Chargers than it is for the Pittsburgh Steelers to beat the Baltimore Ravens. Go back to Week Seven when the Steelers beat the Bengals 24-17 at Paul Brown Stadium during Sunday Night Football -- a game that the Bengals had at one point secured an early 14-3 lead.
Thanks to that game, played 43 days ago, Cincinnati has forced themselves into must-win scenarios for remainder of the season. Even if the Steelers lose today and the Bengals win, Cincinnati will hold a one-game lead that could easily be neutralized if the Steelers beat the Bengals on December 23 at Heinz Field. Even the Steelers understand that, willing to sit Ben Roethlisberger against the Baltimore Ravens this weekend.
If Pittsburgh upsets the Ravens, that changes things because then Baltimore's division lead isn't so comfortable. If Cincinnati beats the Chargers, Pittsburgh and the Bengals are within two games of the North with four games to play. Unfortunately tiebreakers fail to benefit Cincinnati in regards to the Ravens. And Pittsburgh beating Baltimore hurts Cincinnati's tiebreakers against the Steelers as well -- though not as bad with the second tiebreaker for the Wild Card being conference record.
BENGALS WIN THE AFC NORTH
It's entirely possible. If the Bengals win their remaining schedule against the Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, Steelers and Ravens, they'll finish 11-5. Yet Baltimore only needs two wins against the Steelers, Redskins, Broncos and Giants to knock Cincinnati and Pittsburgh out of the division lead for good, due to the second tiebreaker being record in the division.
The Bengals are 1-3 and the Ravens are 4-0 in the division with only two games remaining for both teams. It would be mathematically impossible for Cincinnati to win the division if the Bengals and Ravens finish with identical overall records. To have a fighting chance to claim their second division crown in three years, the Bengals need to win-out with the Ravens collapsing by losing four of the five games remaining this year. Simply put: Cincinnati must have a better overall record.
Which goes back to an original conclusion we had last week. The best (and most likely) path for Cincinnati's postseason berth remains with Baltimore winning the division; also beating Pittsburgh on Sunday. Yet the Bengals have to beat the Chargers this weekend or this becomes a pointless exercise.
DOLPHINS COULD DROP-OFF
Cincinnati played carelessly against the Miami Dolphins, perhaps circling an "easy win" on October 7. Cincinnati sported a 3-1 record at the time and lost at home to a Dolphins team, though having played well this season, still started a rookie quarterback who had just lost to the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets.
Miami is currently one game off Cincinnati's pace and if both teams end the season with identical records, the Dolphins beat out Cincinnati due to the head-to-head tiebreaker for a potential postseason berth.
Fortunately for Cincinnati, the Dolphins enter a rather difficult portion of their schedule with two meetings against the New England Patriots and a Week 14 game against the 49ers in San Francisco. Before you point out that the second meeting against the Patriots is the final game of the season, remember that New England could be fighting for a higher seed and if there's something play for, you better believe Bill Belichick will try to win that game.
THE COLTS VARIABLE
The Indianapolis Colts are an unknown right now. They've lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, were crushed by the Bears, Patriots and Jets and wins against the Browns, Dolphins and Bills were uncomfortably close. Of the five games remaining, the Colts play the Lions (Week 13), the Texans twice (Week 15, Week 17) with easier games against the Titans and Chiefs rounding out their five-game stretch.
We could see the second game against Houston with the Texans resting their starters, but that only matters if Houston had already secured the first or second seed with no chance to win/lose position.
Indianapolis is the most secured in the Wild Card right now, but if it comes down to the Bengals and Colts, then the applicable tiebreaker is conference record. The Bengals are 4-5 in the AFC with the Colts sporting a better 5-3 record.
IN THE END
The most important thing for the Bengals is to win the next game in front of you. Take care of business and everything above will take care of itself.