The Cincinnati Bengals are entering the final four-game stretch of the regular season.
How well they do in December and early January will determine if they're playing in the Wild Card round or if they're getting a bye week and home-field advantage in the playoffs. While the 10-2 Bengals have occasionally been in contention for a first-round bye this late in the season during their four-straight playoff trips, they've never been in control of their own destiny as much they are now entering the final month of the regular season.
When Week 14 opens, Cincinnati will be the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which they are guaranteed to remain in if they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers this week. As for the two clubs Cincinnati is competing with for the AFC's top seed, the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos will enter Sunday also sitting at 10-2. The Pats play at the Houston Texans Sunday night and the Broncos host the Oakland Raiders on Sunday afternoon.
Here's a look at the final four games for each of these three teams competing for a first-round bye and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Week 14 vs Steeelers
Week 15 at 49ers
Week 16 at Broncos
Week 17 vs Ravens
Week 14 at Texans
Week 15 vs Titans
Week 16 at Jets
Week 17 at Dolphins
Week 14 vs Raiders
Week 15 at Steelers
Week 16 vs Bengals
Week 17 vs Chargers
Looking at these schedules, all three teams should win at least two of their final four games. The Bengals have two very winnable games on their schedule vs the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. Cincy will be heavily favored in each of those matchups.
That game at Denver is going to be very tough, and it may very well decide who at least one of the top two seeds in the AFC ends up being. At this point, the Bengals can afford to lose no more than one game in the final four weeks if they want to earn a first-round bye.
It's hard to see Denver or New England losing more than two games going forward, if that, looking at their schedules, so it's imperative the Bengals take care of their own business and win the games they're supposed to win. Denver probably isn't losing at home this week vs Raiders and certainly won't do so in Week 17 vs the Chargers.
However, next week in Pittsburgh is a very tricky game that could go either way. It may be the one time Bengals fans are doing the unthinkable and rooting for the Steelers, but it won't necessarily matter what Denver does in that game.
If the Bengals win this week or beat the 49ers next week, they're guaranteed to enter that Week 16 showdown within one game of the Broncos at the very least. Then if the Bengals pull off the win over the Broncos, Cincy then takes the head-to-head tie-breaker over Denver. Then as long as the Bengals beat the Ravens in Week 17, they'll very likely be seeded ahead of the Broncos.
As for the Patriots, this week in Houston is a tough game that could go either way as banged up as New England is. The same may hold true in Week 16 at the Jets, a game that will be must-win for New york for their playoff hopes. However, the Titans and Dolphins should be easy wins for New England, so two more wins is pretty much a given with them.
As I see it, at least a 3-1 finish for the Bengals is probably their best bet at getting a first-round bye, especially if one of those wins comes against the Broncos. As for the top seed, I think the Patriots will also go 3-1, at the worst, down the stretch, so it will then come down to other tiebreakers like strength of schedule, strength of victory and conference record for who would earn a higher seed.
In the end, the Bengals control their own destiny as the final quarter of the regular season begins, which is pretty much all you can ask for.