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Breaking down Bengals’ remaining playoff scenarios

If you’re placing bets, it’s probably safer to bet against the Bengals making the playoffs this year. But, they still have a few chances left.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC North is an absolute mess this year. At the moment, the 5-5 Baltimore Ravens are leading the division, separated by only a head-to-head win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, also 5-5. Only in a division like this, which has fallen far from the days when there was a significant chance of sending three teams to the playoffs, could the 3-6-1 Cincinnati Bengals still have a realistic chance to make the playoffs.

Granted, that realistic chance would most likely require the Bengals to win at least four of their remaining six games. In a season when the Bengals have only managed to win three games in the first 10, that seems like a pretty heavy proposition. Four of those remaining games come against the Ravens (twice), Steelers, and Browns, none of whom have winning records. So while the chances of the Bengals actually pulling it off seem rather unlikely at the moment, the team does still have a shot at winning the division, and we’ve gone through the scenarios that can get them there.

Virtually impossible scenarios

Although they are not yet mathematically eliminated from this possibility, the chances of the Bengals turning the season around and finishing with the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and earning a first-round bye are extremely unlikely. It would essentially require the Bengals to win all of their remaining games while the Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Patriots, Dolphins, and Texans all lose at least four of their remaining games.

It would probably require a significant amount of divine intervention.

Probability: Less than one percent

The elusive Wild Card possibility

I wouldn’t call this scenario virtually impossible, just very unlikely. First of all, it would require the Denver Broncos (currently the No. 6 seed in the AFC) to lose at least four of the rest of their games. Despite only being in third place in the AFC West, the Broncos are a very tough team and this seems very unlikely. But, let’s entertain the possibility.

In addition to the Bengals winning the rest of their games while the Steelers win the AFC North, the Bengals would, at the very least, need the Miami Dolphins to lose three of their next six games. The scenarios get even muddier than that if the Bengals don’t win the rest of their games, so let’s go ahead and put this one way back on the shelf.

Probability: Less than 10 percent

The unlikely division championship

No team sitting at 3-6-1, heading into Week 12, should be thinking about having a realistic shot of making the playoffs, much less winning their division. But, with both the Ravens and Steelers sitting at 5-5 and the Browns looking like a hot mess at 0-11, this is easily the Bengals’ best shot to make it to their sixth consecutive playoff berth.

That said, for the Bengals to pull this off, it is absolutely crucial that the Bengals defeat the Baltimore Ravens this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, and the Ravens again in Week 17. If the Bengals lose even one of those games, the probability of them winning the AFC North plummets from unlikely to virtually impossible. Well, ok, not quite as virtually impossible as the Bengals pulling things together to earn a first round bye in the playoffs, but probably just as unlikely if not more so than the Bengals earning a Wild Card spot.

Probability: Less than 30 percent

All of that said, let’s not forget the fact that the Bengals’ chances of making the playoffs are still very slim. The only reason they still have a decent shot is because the other teams in the AFC North are struggling mightily as well. Even then, it’s unlikely that the team would suddenly turn things around and start playing that much better.

Right now, the Bengals are on pace to miss the playoffs and receive a top 10 draft pick. Who knows, maybe that would be enough futility to convince Mike Brown that the team needs to move on from Marvin Lewis. In a weird, twisted way, maybe that scenario would be better than an improbable playoff appearance where the team loses in the first round yet again, returning to the status quo the following year.