With what basically amounts to a three-game lead in the AFC North for the Bengals as we head to late November is both comforting and unfamiliar. At 7-4, Cincinnati isn't getting the same respect that they were after their four-game win streak from late September into October, as evidenced by Peter King's recent No.12 ranking this week. Most media members point to quarterback Andy Dalton's inconsistent play, as well as a 1-2 stretch that followed the preceding 4-0 run.
Though the Bengals are an improved team from a year ago, the rest of the division is down. It is a refreshing change of scenery with the Bengals being in the driver's seat instead of their usual annual race to catch up with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Even though the three other rivals all sit at 4-6 after cannibalizing each other, a familiar uneasiness seems to be creeping into Bengaldom. Will they lose their long lead over the next six weeks and five games? Are the perennially-winning Steelers and Ravens truly out of the playoff race?
As Cincinnati plodded to a 13-0 deficit at the hands of the Browns early on Sunday afternoon, I found myself letting out a negative-sounding tweet to the masses. When I did, I received an interesting response that was predictable on the surface, but may be more complicated after digging into it.
Avid CJ reader, known as "emeybee", made the response that I found interesting:
@CJAnthonyCUI Steelers are a non-factor.— MAB (@emeybee) November 17, 2013
I kept trying to respond to "emeybee" with some sort of contradictory opinion, but couldn't really find a way to disagree. Then, the rest of Sunday happened. The Bengals took care of the Browns, the Ravens lost to the Bears and the Steelers, who "are a non-factor", beat a tough Lions team. All of a sudden, there is a major traffic jam in the AFC North behind the Bengals.
A record of 4-6 isn't something to be scared of around Thanksgiving. Those are the teams that usually taper off and hover around .500 while missing out on the postseason. That could very well happen to one, two, or all three of these teams as playoff seeding happens. However, the sixth seed in the AFC Playoff Picture is currently up-for-grabs and no team seems as if they really want it.
While listening and watching various NFL analysts examine the AFC playoff race on Sunday and Monday, many seem to think that it's the Steelers who could make a late push and latch onto that last seed. No, I'm not just talking about former Pittsburgh wide receiver, Hines Ward, either. Jeff Garcia and Trent Dilfer said on their respective networks that they wouldn't be surprised to see the Black and Yellow make a run at the end of the season.
We've seen them do it before. In 2005, they sat at 7-5 while the Bengals were grabbing the division crown and then rattled off four straight wins to get into the postseason and ultimately win Super Bowl XL. In 2008, we saw them finish 6-1 to get their second Super Bowl win in three years and a similar thing happened in 2010 with only the result in the big game being different. The Steelers have a way of putting things together at the end of a season to make the playoffs and break hearts in January and February.
The 2013 version in the Steel City isn't as talented as those previous teams, though. They got off to a horrible start and have been inconsistent for most of the season. Something favoring the Bengals, at least for the division crown, is that Cincy already beat them once this year at home. The satisfaction that was had with that primetime win could dissipate quickly if the Bengals lose at Heinz Field in December, though.
In some respects, I agree with "emeybee". Barring an epic collapse by Cincinnati and/or a magical resurrection by the Steelers, the Bengals seem to have a good grasp on the division. However, I don't think that the Steelers are a non-factor for the playoffs, entirely. As I said earlier, they may not be as talented, but they have a few things going for them:
1.) Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
2.) Head coach Mike Tomlin.
3.) They are the Pittsburgh Steelers (AKA they know how to win).
If the Bengals rattle off three or four wins over the next five, including one over the Colts, it's possible that they could be looking at the No.3 seed. That one doesn't come with a bye, but does allow the team to host a game against the No.6 seed. If the Steelers can rise out of the mess of teams trying for that final spot, we could see a Bengals/Steelers playoff rematch in PBS.
Maybe it's a far-fetched thought, but we've seen weirder things happen in the NFL. For now, the Bengals have the division lead by quite a bit--but everyone should be keeping a watchful eye on the three teams below them at 4-6. In my book, nobody is "a non-factor" until they are officially eliminated from the picture.