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Despite losing record, ESPN likes Bengals’ playoff odds

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Here’s a playoff ranking that actually likes the Bengals’ odds of making it back to the postseason.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

After weeks of seeing playoff studies that showed why Cincinnati was unlikely to make the playoffs, it took all of one win to change that tune.

Over at ESPN, senior reporter John Clayton ranked all the NFL teams below .500 who have the best shot of making it to the playoffs. He ranked Cincinnati at the top spot:

1. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4)

Though the Bengals haven't played particularly well -- in part because of a tough early schedule -- they check all of the boxes for a team that could get hot. Quarterback Andy Dalton has been efficient. The defense is giving up 23.1 points per game but has the talent to go under 20. The teams left on their schedule have a combined winning percentage of .492. The Bengals' only AFC North loss was in Pittsburgh, and they get the Steelers at home on Dec. 18. The offense -- scoring just 20 points per game so far -- has the potential to get to 24. And the return of tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed six games due to injury, should improve Cincinnati's passing offense and red zone production.

Part of why Clayton put the Bengals so high was likely due to one of his main qualifiers: Teams need to either be in a conference that is down or in a division that could be won with seven to nine victories.

That may very well be the AFC North this year with Pittsburgh leading the division with a 4-3 record, having lost three of their last five games. They also may not have Ben Roethlisberger for a few weeks as he recovers from a partially torn meniscus. It’s not a stretch to see a nine-win team earning the AFC North crown this season.

Another qualifier in this ranking is remaining strength of schedule. Cincinnati faces 4-3 Washington, 4-3 New York, 4-3 Pittsburgh, 4-2 Philadelphia, 3-4 Baltimore twice, 0-7 Cleveland, 4-3 Houston, and 4-3 Buffalo.

Sure, those road games vs the Giants and Texans will be tough, but both teams have shown they’re very vulnerable. The Bills, Eagles and Steelers are good, but they’ll all be playing in Paul Brown Stadium.

That’s as good of a nine-game stretch as any NFL team could ask for.

Looking at the rest of the ranking, Cincinnati has or will have played most of the teams in AFC postseason contention. They’ve already knocked off the Dolphins (3 on the list) and Jets (6), giving them the all-important tiebreakers over both teams.

The Bengals also have two matchups with the Ravens (4), one of which being in Cincinnati to end the regular season. You may have noticed Baltimore is riding a four-game losing streak, and I’m no historian, but I can’t recall many teams making the playoffs with such a streak.

The Chiefs did it last year after losing five straight, and the Bengals did it in 2012 after losing four straight, so there is recent precedence, but it doesn’t happen often.

All said, the Bengals will be in the playoffs again if they just take care of their business the rest of the season. That begins this Sunday with a Washington team that Cincinnati, at its best, is simply better than.