Since the beginning of the Dalton-Green era in Cincinnati, the Bengals have managed to make it to the playoffs every year. They've made it through rebuilding efforts, roster changes, coaching changes, and even losing their franchise quarterback to a season-ending injury.
The path to the playoffs is never easy, as the Bengals' recent history can attest. But, they've managed to pull through every year and achieve a goal that they only managed to do twice from 1992-2010. Unfortunately, they haven't managed to win once there. They came closest last year, but a late fumble from Jeremy Hill and a pair of personal foul penalties from Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones led to another loss, despite virtually having the game wrapped up.
They're still looking for that elusive first playoff win. Although you still have to get to the postseason in the first place to have a chance to win a playoff game. Despite the fact they've made it every year so far, there's no guarantee that the Bengals make it this year. If they want to return to the postseason again in 2016, here's what the path will probably look like.
Wild Card Berth
Minimum record required: 9-7
At this point, expecting the Bengals to finish the season with anything less than a wild card berth would be a bold prediction. There are a few crazies out there who think the Bengals will have a terrible season, for whatever reason. But, those people are generally outliers. I would argue that predicting the Bengals to be 9-7 this year after going 12-4 last year would be a pessimistic prediction. I see them getting to nine wins, at least.
There's a chance the Bengals may need a record of 10-6 to get a wild card berth, but, I fully expect them to be able to get a wild card berth in 2016. The Bengals will likely be competing against teams like the Jets, Bills, Chiefs, Raiders, Texans, Colts, Steelers, and Ravens for this spot. They play the Jets, Steelers, Texans, and Bills in 2016, so it really depends on how they perform against those teams to figure out exactly what record they'll need for a wild card berth.
AFC North Champions
Minimum record required: 11-5
As you've probably figured out, these minimum record requirements are merely meant to be used as a guideline. In this case, the requirement for a divisional championship hinges on many factors. I'm expecting the Ravens to return to a competitive state next year. That's not to say I think they'll challenge for the division crown, but they'll do well enough to even the division out and probably allow 11-5 as a sufficient record to win the crown.
Last year, The Bengals could have finished 11-5 and still won the division. But, for a while, it looked like a late push from the Steelers could have resulted in 12-4 not even necessarily being sufficient. If they can at least put up a 4-2 divisional record next year, you can probably expect them to do well enough through the rest of their schedule to record another division championship.
First Round Bye
Minimum record required: 12-4
Yes, the Bengals finished 12-4 last year and missed out on a first round bye. But, that was mostly due to the fact that they lost to the Broncos during the season. Had they beaten them and, instead, lost to any other team that they beat, that would have been enough to skip out on Wild Card weekend. Save for a late collapse and a botched snap in overtime, that could have actually been an entirely likely scenario.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen, but who's to say it couldn't happen this year? The Bengals play both of last year's first round bye teams (the Broncos and Patriots) this year. It's hard to see one of the AFC South teams making a push for the first or second seed in the 2016 playoffs, so if the Bengals beat either the Broncos (at home) or Patriots (away), they'll be in pretty good shape to get a first round bye as long as they can equal last year's record.
It's pretty hard to see the Bengals missing the playoffs this year, although which exact seed they'll end up with is a mystery. You could make the argument that the team has improved this offseason, which could result in a record of 13-3 or better. At that point, you can probably go ahead and write them in with a first round bye. Even if they don't get better, it would be an absolute shock to see them sitting at home during the playoffs.