While it seems foolish to think about playoffs, I can't help myself. And when you look at who is ahead of us, you see some flawed teams that could stumble and give us an opening. Here are some thoughts on what needs to happen for Cincy to make the playoffs if they win out and go 9-7.
Start from this premise: despite their relatively easy schedule, the Browns could go 2-2 outside of the game with Cincy. Assuming the Bengals win out, that puts Cincy and Cleveland in a tie at 9-7. The first step in the wild-card tiebreaker is to eliminate all but the top team from each division, which would mean Cincy survives by virtue of our then 4-2 division record over Cleveland's 3-3 division record (remember Pittsburgh beat them twice). So no problems with Cleveland...
Outside the division, you have to assume that Jacksonville at 8-3 will finish 10-6 or better and take the top wild card. So who could ruin the miracle run? Denver, Buffalo, and Tennessee are the likeliest candidates.
Denver, at 5-6, could conceivably go 4-1 to tie the Bengals at 9-7. Assuming they do that, their superior AFC record (which would be either 9-3 or 8-4) would put them over the top in a tiebreaker with Cincy or multiple teams, as the Bengals would have a 7-5 AFC record. So Denver is a problem and we have to have Denver lose 2 games or we have zero chance.
Buffalo, at 5-6, would also need to go 4-1 to tie at 9-7. They have the head-to-head win over Cincy, so if Cincy and Buffalo are the only two teams tied at 9-7, Buffalo's in and we're out. However, if Tennessee were to also get to 9-7 and make a 3-way tie, then head-to-head does not matter because Tennessee and Buffalo do not play each other this season. AFC record would be the tiebreaker. Tennessee would have a 6-6 AFC record in this scenario and the Bengals would have a 7-5 AFC record. Buffalo has 3 games against NFC teams remaining (Was, NYG, Phi) and only two against AFC teams (Mia, Cle). So in this scenario where they go 4-1, they could end up with either a 7-5 or a 6-6 AFC record. If they are at 7-5, then Tennessee drops out of the tiebreaker and the Bills get to use their head-to-head advantage over Cincy. But if Buffalo loses to an AFC team, then Cincy takes the wild-card. Bottom line: we need the Bills to drop two games, or else to lose to Miami or Cleveland AND have Tennessee tie at 9-7.
Tennessee, at 6-5, obviously has a leg up in the W-L column, but they play the Chargers, @ Indy, and @ K.C, and could definitely drop two of those games. With Cincy's head-to-head win and Tennessee's poor AFC record, we have nothing to fear from Tennessee in a tiebreaker, and, in fact, we want them tied with us at 9-7 to neutralize the Bills. So root for Tennessee to go exactly 3-2 down the stretch.
I haven't mentioned the other 5-6 team, Houston, because they face a brutal schedule and are probably not going to wind up with a winning record. If K.C. also pulls off a miracle run from 4-7 to 9-7, they should eliminate us, but their schedule is tough too (between S.D., Den., Tennessee and K.C. there should be at least one loss in there.) Also, Baltimore at 4-7 is sinking and we own the division tiebreaker over them.
So to recap, here's what we need to happen (each and every thing listed below must happen):
- We run the table.
- Cleveland loses two other games (Go Cards!)
- Denver loses at least two games (Go Raiders!)
- Buffalo loses at least two games (Go Skins!) OR Buffalo loses one game to an AFC opponent (Go Fins!) and Tennessee goes exactly 3-2 down the stretch.
- Tennessee loses at least two games.
- K.C. loses a game. (Go Chargers!)