The Cincinnati Bengals haven't clinched the playoffs just yet, but they currently hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC and can shore up their destiny on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Cincinnati. If the Bengals win on Sunday, they will not only clinch the playoffs, but they will clinch the AFC North. This week is big, as every one of the last four games on the Bengals' schedule will be if they do in fact want a playoff bye.
The Bengals have made it a point to keep their eyes on the prize each week, taking on the season with a week-by-week approach. But one thing is clear, their goals aren't just making the playoffs.
"This is a new year. It’s a new mentality for us. We have been playing really well," Andy Dalton said after Sunday's win over the Browns when asked how this year will be different when the Bengals inevitably make it to the playoffs. "There are some new pieces. We have bigger goals than just making the playoffs. We have to keep the same process that we’ve had up to this point, keep the focus and put ourselves in a good position at the end of the year to be playing our best."
Making the playoffs won't matter if the Bengals fall short in the first round for the fifth consecutive year. It will almost make the season one to forget, despite an 8-0 start and 10-2 current record. Maybe not; this season has been too remarkable for a playoff loss to cause it to be written off, but if the Bengals can't win a playoff game, the reaction won't be pretty. The Bengals don't want that to happen so as Dalton said, focus is key, as is the health of the team down the stretch.
Wallace Gilberry is one of the most vocal members of the Bengals and spoke to the media after Sunday's game, quickly reflecting on the importance of the approaching matchup with the Steelers. "We have to go out there and take care of business," Gilberry said. "We have a chance to do something great and that is to clinch the division in front of our home fans. I am sure that they are going to pack the house and we are definitely going to put on a show."
Jeremy Hill echoed those sentiments. "At the beginning of the season, we said that we wanted to win the AFC North," Hill said. "That is our number one goal. Obviously next week is going to be big."
Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones has been a part of the Bengals' playoff failures, though he was on Injured/Reserve last season come playoff time. "If we control what we have to do and capitalize on what we have to capitalize on, we'll be successful," Jones said.
While many Bengals have their sights set on the playoffs, that's not yet head coach Marvin Lewis' goal, especially after getting swept by the Steelers and losing out to Pittsburgh for the AFC North crown in 2014.
"We get a chance to write that script so we have a lot of work to do and we’ll stay on point and get back to work tomorrow," Lewis said on Sunday. "Our No. 1 goal is to win the division so we have a big football game next week. From what I was told, I think we can clinch the division next week. We have Pittsburgh at home. We went out there last year, they clinched the division on us so we have a chance to flip the script."
While the AFC North title is definitely the team's No. 1 priority right now, Domata Peko was one player who admitted he has higher hopes for the team. "We have to keep our eye on the prize and the prize is winning our division first and hoping we play for a championship," he told Bengals.com. "We come into every game ready to win and going into the game thinking we’re going to win. And our team is playing with confidence. That’s what we want to see."
Hill captures the sentiment in Cincinnati well. "Any time your coach challenges you to do something, you want to respond," he said via ESPN's Coley Harvey. "We just know what's at stake. Everyone in here knows what it is. "You can almost taste it at this point."