Make no mistake about it: Even if the Cincinnati Bengals were to lose this week, they'd still be a significant favorite to win the AFC North and earn the right to host at least one playoff game.
But let's just pretend a terrible fate for a few minutes... Imagine the Steelers beat the Bengals Sunday thanks to Big Ben's return. Along with Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell now back after missing time due to suspensions, Pittsburgh goes on a second-half run of the season that helps them pass Cincinnati to win the AFC North. What would it take for the Bengals to ensure they at least make it to the playoffs this year?
For a Wild Card berth, the Bengals are already holding a commanding lead for one of the two spots available in the AFC. They're two games ahead of the 4-2 New York Jets in addition to being 2.5 spots ahead of the 4-3 Pittsburgh Steelers. However, it's probably going to only be Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the fight for the AFC North, so we'll factor Pittsburgh out of the Wild Card discussion.
After them, it's a tie between the 3-3 Oakland Raiders and 3-3 Miami Dolphins for the next spot. The Bengals are essentially four games ahead of the Raiders after winning at Oakland earlier this season. Miami doesn't play Cincinnati this season, so in the event they finish with equal records, there will be tie-breakers based on division record and conference record. That said, even with the Dolphins' hot streak, it's hard to see them finishing with more than nine wins. The same holds true for the Raiders.
Then there's the 3-4 Buffalo Bills, but they have no hope of catching Cincinnati. The Bengals' win in Buffalo effectively gives them a five-game lead over the Bills for a playoff spot, and Buffalo may not win five more games this season.
I'm not even considering the 2-5 Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans, or Jacksonville Jaguars as teams who can pass the Bengals in the playoff standings. The Chargers and Chiefs have enough talent to win eight or nine games if everything falls their way, but Cincinnati owns wins over each team.
At this rate, the Bengals could probably win nine games and be in the running for a playoff spot, but 10 wins should get it done. That's what I'll predict Cincinnati's magic number to be to win a Wild Card spot. Already sitting at 6-0, the Bengals would need to have a massive collapse over the second half of this season for that to even be the case.
If the Bengals were to lose the AFC North and reach the playoffs, they'd likely be playing as the No. 5 seed going against the No. 4 seed, which is likely whoever wins the AFC South. That division is a mess, and it could see the Indianapolis Colts win the division with an 8-8 or 9-7 record.
This brings about another possible quandary for Bengals nation: Given what we've seen of these two teams, would you rather see a healthy Steelers team come into Paul Brown Stadium in the Wild Card round, or would you rather see the Bengals playing in Indianapolis?
Personally, given what the Steelers and Colts have shown they're capable of (or not in the case of Indy), I'd feel more confident going to Indy and getting a win than beating the Steelers with their full assortment of weapons.
Whatever happens, it's very rare you can call a team a near lock for the playoffs seven weeks through the season, but that's what the Bengals are. With a win this week, you can pretty much call them a lock. And, hopefully all of this magic number talk is irrelevant and the Bengals win the AFC North. At the rate they're going, a first round bye is even a possibility. Of course, there are 10 games remaining and only time will tell how the season plays out.