The Bengals’ 2-4 start to the 2016 NFL season isn’t exactly what the team or their fans had in mind at this point. In their defense, it has been a rough first six games. Two of their games came against low-performing teams in the 2-4 Miami Dolphins and the 1-5 New York Jets. Their four losses have come against the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in Cincinnati, the division leading Steelers in Pittsburgh, the upstart Cowboys in Dallas, and the always tough New England Patriots in Foxborough.
That’s not an excuse for the Bengals’ record. But, the combined record of the four opponents they’ve lost to (18-6) shows that things haven’t exactly been easy so far.
However, if there is one positive to take away from this, it’s that the schedule gets a lot easier from here on out. Over the next six weeks, the Bengals only face two teams who currently have a winning record (Redskins, Bills). The other three teams (Browns, Giants, Ravens) have a combined record of 6-12.
Granted, that is largely due to the fact that the Browns are the only team in the NFL to have lost all six of their games so far this season. But, the Ravens and Giants are currently sitting at .500 on the season. That should bode well for a Bengals team that has shown flashes, but failed to finish off wins against some of the NFL’s tougher opponents.
A 2-4 start isn’t generally conducive to being in position for a playoff push. But, the way things are currently shaping up, it isn’t that crazy to think the Bengals have a shot to improve their fortunes in Week 7 and beyond for a legitimate chance. There are two ways to make the playoffs in the NFL, both of which are actually still very attainable for the Bengals.
AFC North Champions
The most sure-fire way to enter the playoffs at the end of an NFL season is to win your division. The Bengals’ 2-4 start doesn’t look great right now to achieve this, but it’s actually manageable when considering the rest of the AFC North. First of all, let’s go ahead and get the fact that the Browns are a non-threat out of the way right now. At 0-6 and without hope of improving any time soon, their playoff hopes are all but dead already. At the same time, the two teams ahead of the Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, aren’t exactly running away with the division right now.
For the first few weeks of the season, the Ravens were looking like the most improved team in the NFL after starting 3-0 with wins against the Bills, Browns, and Jaguars. But, their schedule has picked up in intensity over the last few weeks and they haven’t won since. The 2-4 Bengals are only a single game behind them and have both head to head games remaining. The Bengals haven’t lost to the Ravens since November 10, 2013, so it seems like there is a good chance for the Bengals to take advantage of this position.
The Steelers already have a leg up on the Bengals after winning their Week 2 matchup in Pittsburgh. But, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee on Sunday against the Dolphins. He played through the pain, but was ineffective in the process and ended up being part of a devastating 30-15 loss to the lowly Dolphins.
As a result, the Steelers will host the Patriots this coming Sunday without Roethlisberger. They very well could be without his services for a few additional weeks, depending on the recovery. As of right now, they are only two games ahead of the Bengals going into a very tough matchup, while the Bengals take on the worst team in the NFL. If things go as expected in Week 7, the Bengals will only be a single game behind the Steelers in the division with a head to head matchup at home left to play.
In addition to any notion that the Browns might be a threat to win the division, we should also probably recognize that if the Bengals do somehow manage to come back and win the AFC North, their chances of receiving a favorable seed are very low. The Bengals have already dropped a head to head matchup against the likely AFC East champion New England Patriots as well as a game against the Denver Broncos, who are tied for first in the AFC West.
In the AFC South, the Houston Texans are currently sitting at a record of 4-2 and the Bengals play Houston on Christmas Eve in Week 16. it’s a pretty safe bet to say that, if they manage to pull off the comeback victory in the division, it will probably come with the No. 4 seed.
Wild Card Seed
If the Bengals are unable to steal the division away from the Pittsburgh Steelers, a Wild Card seed could still be on the table. If the playoffs ended today, the 4-2 Buffalo Bills and the 4-2 Denver Broncos would be the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds.
There is a chance that the Bills will fall off in the coming weeks as they take on the Dolphins, Patriots, and Seahawks. The following week they will come to Cincinnati to face the Bengals, a game that could be pivotal in determining the Wild Card race.
As far as the Broncos go, the Bengals already lost to them, so they would do well to hope that the Broncos end up taking the division from the Raiders and the Raiders end up falling off. However, there’s not much the Bengals can do about either of those teams directly at this point. So, it’s all about improving in the second part of the season and getting lucky.
With the Bengals’ schedule easing up in the second portion of the season and the fact that they have flashed competence in most of their games so far, my guess is they will end up squeezing out enough wins to qualify for the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Based on their performance through the first six weeks, it’s hard to have any confidence that they will accomplish anything once they make it to the playoffs. But, to even have a shot to win in the postseason, you must make it there in the first place. With a relatively weak upcoming schedule and competing in a weakened division, that scenario doesn’t seem too far-fetched for the Bengals.