Heading into Week 16, here is what we know about the Bengals:
The Bengals can clinch the AFC North title with two wins.
The Bengals can clinch a playoff spot with a win.
The Bengals are clear underdogs in their final two games against the Broncos and Steelers, and it would be understandable and unsurprising if they lose both. The Broncos currently have the No. 4 ranked offense in the NFL, and the Steelers have the No. 1. The Bengals defense is still ranked well below-average and will be facing Peyton Manning, a bevy of offensive weapons, and the offensive line that has given up the fewest sacks in the entire league. The following week, the Bengals will be traveling to play on the home field of a team that beat them 42-21 less than two weeks ago. The Steelers also have a top-tier quarterback and a group of playmakers, including the NFL's best running back, Le'Veon Bell.
To top it all, the first game will be on Monday night in primetime, and the second game has a strong chance of being flexed primetime to Sunday night. We have seen how the Bengals have performed in primetime throughout the years, particularly this season at the Patriots and at home against the Browns.
To put things in perspective, I visited Baltimore Beatdown and Behind the Steel Curtain this week. Reading their conversations about the Ravens' and Steelers' playoff chances, it is essentially a foregone conclusion to them that the Bengals will lose their last two games of the regular season. Considering the opponents and circumstances, I don't blame them for believing so, even though the Bengals do have a realistic chance to win.
Here is what we know about the other playoff-contending teams:
The Ravens are very likely to win their final two games, at the
Ryan Fitzpatrick Ryan Mallett Tom Savage Thad Lewis- or Case Keenum-quarterbacked Texans, and then at home vs. the Johnny Manziel-quarterbacked Browns. This would eliminate the possibility of the second Bengals scenario above. Excluding the mathematically-ineligible Browns, the Bengals have the lowest odds of winning the AFC North. To win the AFCN, all the Steelers need to do is win two home games in which they are mild favorites. To win the AFCN, all the Ravens need to do is beat two bad teams, in combination with the Steelers and Bengals each losing once. Both of those are easier than the Bengals' path.
The Bills are essentially toast. They have to play at the Patriots in Week 17, and there's no doubt that New England will go full strength considering that Denver currently has an identical record and is gunning for the top AFC seed. The Bills have a lifetime 2-24 record against Tom Brady, including 0-13 at Foxboro. They have never beaten Brady in Foxboro.
The Chargers are essentially toast. They have played poorly for all of December so far, and this past week lost their top skill player (Keenan Allen), best linebacker and defensive captain (Donald Butler), and their punter (Mike Scifres) to season-ending injuries. They already had a laundry list of players on season-ending IR: their starting RG (Jeromey Clary), all of their top 3 centers (Nick Hardwick, Rich Ohrnberger, Doug Legursky), a top CB (Jason Verrett), and their top RB (Danny Woodhead). Their other top RB, Ryan Mathews, is out. Even Philip Rivers' health is in question, with lingering rib and back injuries, which has put him into a funk. These are some crippling personnel losses. It has gotten so bad that they plucked our old friend, Trevor Robinson, off the Bengals practice squad and have given him starts at C. Now, they have to go on the road and play at the 49ers and then at the Chiefs. If you think the Chargers are going to win out, then I have a bridge to sell you.
The Chiefs are looking very good in Week 17, at home and playing the Chargers. Therefore, this upcoming Week 16 game at the Steelers is their only likely chance at a loss. If the Chiefs beat the Steelers, and then beat the free-falling Chargers as expected, and if the Bengals lose as expected to the Broncos and Steelers, the Bengals will not make the playoffs. The Chiefs would sneak into the playoffs instead.
However, if the Steelers win this week, the Bengals have their playoff ticket punched regardless of what happens in their next two games - barring the depleted Chargers pulling an absolute shocker by going on the road and beating both the 49ers and Chiefs, and the Bills winning in Foxboro. Realistically, those two things have almost no chance of happening. If the Steelers lose this week, the Ravens would still be the clear favorite over the Bengals to win the AFC North, and the Chiefs winning would significantly hurt the Bengals' playoff odds. The Bengals would have nothing to gain and a lot to lose.
The U.S. men's national soccer team and Mexico men's national soccer team are hated rivals, perhaps more so than the Bengals and Steelers. However, on October 15, 2013, Mexico's fans and announcers were willing to cross the line by rooting for their archenemy, when Mexico's chance of making the 2014 World Cup rested on the U.S. tying or defeating Panama. When the 90 minutes of regulation finished, the U.S. was down 2-1. Graham "Saint" Zusi and Aron "Kevin Bacon" Johannsson dramatically scored 2 goals in under one and a half minutes in stoppage time to defeat Panama 3-2 and allow Mexico to steal their World Cup berth:
(As long as you are a patriot and a fan of America, even if you're not a fan of soccer, you have to be beaming with nationalistic pride about how the Mexican announcers are praising the U.S.)
If Mexico is willing to root for the Yanks like this, then surely Bengals fans can reluctantly root for the Steelers for one game.
The Chiefs losing would all but guarantee the Bengals a playoff berth at minimum. If that happens, then the Bengals can still play to "flip the script" by upsetting the Broncos and then the Steelers (and if the Ravens lose, then the Bengals would need to beat only the Steelers) to take the division outright, without the added pressure of failing to make the playoffs altogether if they lose out as expected. Make no mistake - the Bengals will get a shot at the Steelers in Week 17. But this week, it's imperative that the Chiefs lose above all else.