There's no doubt that when it comes down to it, the Cincinnati Bengals need to take care of business. Allowing competitive AFC North teams to beat each other up, makes for interesting viewing, but in reality the Bengals have eased into the playoffs with similar scenarios before with virtually no momentum. So when we talk about other teams in the division (and the conference) while projecting how it impacts the Bengals postseason position, remember that our first point (whether acknowledged in the post or not) is that Cincinnati must take care of business first. Nothing else actually matters.
That being said, the momentum of Pittsburgh's three-game winning streak came to a halt following Baltimore's 22-20 win Thursday Night. Pittsburgh falls 2.5 games behind the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals. The loss came with a price as four offensive linemen had treatment following the game, as did rookie running back, Le'Veon Bell, who forced him out of the game with a head injury.
If the Bengals secure a (another) critical win over the Chargers this Sunday, the Steelers fall three games back with four to go -- the theme of taking care of business for Cincinnati is critical each week for the rest of the season. Pittsburgh hosts the Dolphins and Bengals before playing in Green Bay, who will likely have quarterback Aaron Rodgers back (he could return next week). Pittsburgh will host the Cleveland Browns in the regular season finale.
By no means does this suggest that Pittsburgh is out of the playoff race. The Steelers still have plenty of opportunity to claim the sixth wild card seed, currently held by Baltimore heading into Sunday's games, roughly one game off the lead. But they'll need help.
"With four games to play, the Steelers will most likely need to win out, which isn't news, and Baltimore controls their fate," writes Neal Coolong with Behind the Steel Curtain. "If (Baltimore goes) undefeated in their final four games, they will clinch the AFC's final wild card."
Baltimore is obviously in a better position.
With a win over the Steelers, they closed to within Cincinnati's lead by 1.5 games as of Friday morning. Having already beaten the Bengals earlier this year, the Ravens only need a one-game improvement (a week where they win and the Bengals lose) for the regular season finale on Dec. 29. A Bengals loss in San Diego will create a virtual tie, because if the Ravens beat the Bengals in week 17, they'll win the division by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Baltimore beat the Bengals 20-17 on Nov. 10.
This was the scenario no matter who won on Thursday, so it's new and we expected it based on this weekend's matchups.
Baltimore has the tougher schedule, therefore we favored a Ravens victory. After playing the Vikings in week 14, the Ravens head to Detroit and then host the New England Patriots before the AFC North showdown between the Ravens and Bengals.
In the end, none of this matters.
Excluding the winning percentage of opposing teams, Cincinnati may have the toughest schedule out of everyone. They play in San Diego this weekend and then return home to host the Indianapolis Colts. Pittsburgh and Baltimore also remain on Cincinnati's schedule in week 15 and 17 respectively.
The Bengals must take care of business to ensure that the AFC North race doesn't become a sprint to the finish. But if they can't, then in reality, they just didn't deserve it.