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Glimmer of hope: Do Bengals still have shot at the playoffs?

If the Bengals finish the season with five consecutive victories, will that be enough to push them into the playoffs?

If you haven’t been paying attention, the Cincinnati Bengals are currently 4-7-1. That’s not a very good record, so it’s understandable if your attention has been waning. Being three games under 0.500, many have reasonably written the Bengals’ 2016 season off – especially with the injury to the league’s top wide receiver, A.J. Green. But is the Bengals’ season truly lost? Let’s take a look.

The Bengals have four remaining games, none of which are against great teams. This means that while difficult, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Bengals to win all four games.

  • at CLE (0-12)
  • vs PIT (7-5)
  • at HOU (6-6)
  • vs BAL (7-5)

The Bengals’ final four games line up as well as they could hope, with their two easiest opponents on the road, and the two toughest opponents at home. If, and that’s a big if, they can win out, the Bengals would have a final record of 8-7-1. But is eight wins enough to reach the playoffs? Let’s take a look.

The NFL restructured its league to the current format of four divisions in each conference, with four teams each. And its playoffs have been set since then with the four division winners, plus the top two non-division winners as Wild Card teams. So we will go back to 2002 and see what history shows us.

Teams with eight wins or less who reached the playoffs since 2002:

  • 2015: None
  • 2014: Carolina 7-8-1 NFC South
  • 2013: Green Bay 8-7-1 NFC North
  • 2012: None
  • 2011: Denver 8-8 AFC West
  • 2010: Seattle 7-9 NFC West
  • 2009: None
  • 2008: San Diego 8-8 AFC West
  • 2007: None
  • 2006: New York Giants 8-8 Wild Card
  • 2005: None
  • 2004: Minnesota 8-8 Wild Card
  • 2004: St Louis Rams 8-8 Wild Card
  • 2003: None
  • 2002: None

Based on history, it is possible for a team with only 8 wins or less to reach the playoffs. It has happened eight times over the last 14 seasons. So just about every other year an eight win team can make the playoffs. Therefore, the Bengals’ season is not quite dead in the water yet, assuming they can win every remaining game to end the season.

Four of those occurrences of an eight win team making the playoffs involved a team entering as a Wild Card team. This year, the Bengals have a pitifully low chance to make the playoffs as a Wild Card team with an 8-7-1 record. This is because the AFC West already has a team with 10 wins, a team with 9 wins, and a team with 8 wins (who holds the tiebreaker with the Bengals). This means the Bengals’ best chance of reaching the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record, would be to win the AFC North.

In the AFC North, both the Steelers and Ravens are 7-5, meaning if both teams finish their final four games no better than 1-3, they would end the year 8-8. An 8-7-1 Bengals team would surpass any 8-8 teams for the division title. But how likely is it that both the Steelers and Ravens would finish 1-3 or even 0-4? Let’s look at their upcoming schedules and see if a 1-3 finish is even reasonable for the Steelers or Ravens.

Baltimore remaining games:

  • at New England
  • vs Philadelphia
  • at Pittsburgh
  • at Cincinnati

It is very possible that the Ravens would lose in New England, and if we are assuming the Bengals will win out, then we can count that game against the Bengals as a loss. That leaves the Ravens with games at Pittsburgh, and at home against the Eagles. It is possible that the Ravens would do no better than split those other two games. They still have to play the Steelers in Pittsburgh, so a 1-3 finish is feasible for the Ravens, meaning a 4-0 finish for the Bengals could possibly get them past the Ravens.

Pittsburgh remaining games:

  • at Buffalo
  • at Cincinnati
  • vs Baltimore
  • vs Cleveland

We can probably assume the Steelers defeat the Browns in Week 17, especially if it comes down to being a play-in game for the Steelers to make the playoffs. If we are assuming the Bengals win out, we can count that game as a loss for the Steelers. This means the Steelers would have to lose both in Buffalo, and at home against the Ravens. This is possible, although somewhat unlikely. The Steelers seem to be unlikely to lose more than two of their remaining games, meaning they would likely finish the year 9-7 at worst, meaning the Bengals wouldn’t be able to pass them with their 8-7-1 record.

Ultimately, a Bengals team that has a strong finish with five straight wins to go from 3-7-1 to 8-7-1 has just about no chance to make the playoffs. Their Wild Card hopes are nearly extinguished, and they have a very, very low chance to win the division, as they would need a total collapse from both the Ravens (possible) and Steelers (unlikely) for that 8-7-1 record to be good enough to win the AFC North.

Essentially, it’s onto the draft.