With two weeks left to play this season, the Bengals have a 72.1% chance to finish with the worst record in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. All they have to do is lose one more game and the first-overall pick in the NFL Draft is there’s for the taking.
What’s one more loss when 13 have come before it?
Well, it’s not exactly a given.
Sitting at 1-13, the Bengals’ strength of schedule is a whopping .565, the highest in the league. Not only have they boosted the records of the 12 teams they’ve lost to, most of them were already pretty good to begin with. As it stands right now, they will have played six playoff teams and three others that are still in the playoff hunt.
A high strength of schedule doesn’t erase the pain of being 1-13, but it does justify it a minuscule amount. The problem is, it could also very well come back and haunt the Bengals.
There are four teams left that can still claim the top pick in the draft by the time Week 17 concludes. The Miami Dolphins (11.4%), New York Giants (8.7%) and Washington Redskins (7.7%) are each 3-11, making all three of them two games behind the Bengals with two games to go. This upcoming week is unique because, unless two ties occur in the same week for the first time in the Modern NFL, at least two of these teams will come out with a win, and at least one will be eliminated from contention.
The Bengals will play the Dolphins at the same time that the Giants play the Redskins. What makes this even more interesting is that the two teams most likely to draft a quarterback will face off, while the other two teams are divisional rivals who each drafted a first-round quarterback last year and could certainly use a Chase Young in their lives.
The loser of the Giants and Redskins game will have decent odds at finishing at 3-13, since the Giants play the Eagles and the Redskins play the Cowboys, two teams that are finding their groove as the playoffs inch closer. The winner will end up with at least four wins and can kiss the first pick goodbye.
There’s a reason why these two teams have smaller odds than the Dolphins have at the same record, and that’s because the Dolphins are playing a Patriots team in Week 17 that could still be fighting for a home playoff game. If there’s a potential scenario where you could bet the mortgage on it, it’s that game.
Still, the Bengals are the lone team that can win this week and not have their draft position affected. A win over the Dolphins would keep them with a one-game lead over two teams and they’d remain the favorites to come out at the top of the order. But remember, the Dolphins are going to be heavy underdogs in Week 17. Will the Bengals be the same? Probably not.
For their last game, the Bengals will play the Browns, who are likely to get eliminated from playoff contention this upcoming week. Turmoil has been the constant for the preseason AFC North favorites and with all the rumblings regarding certain players wanting out of a Freddie Kitchens-led locker room, you have to wonder what their effort level will be like in one week’s time after their playoff hopes are inevitably dashed.
Hell, the effort level in their home game against the Bengals just two weeks ago was borderline questionable, and you could certainly make an argument that the Bengals could’ve won that game if a couple of calls went the other way. The Bengals will want revenge against the Browns and to end their season on a high note, but the Dolphins game comes first.
It’s truly fitting that the top pick in the draft could come down to this game—a game that was tabbed as the “Tank for Tua” bowl not too long ago when both teams were winless. When Miami started winning, many thought their tank job had been ruined. Not only are they still alive, they could be the ideal team for the Bengals to beat.
Offensive consistency remains the Bengals’ most pressing issue, and the Dolphins have the worst defense in the league by far according to Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA metric. They allowed the Giants to score five touchdowns against them last week, they’re simply horrendous on that side of the ball. Zac Taylor has no reason to limit the playbook for Andy Dalton in this game, as even he could have success against this unit.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Miami does have the slight advantage there with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who miraculously has the 10th-best QBR in the league this year, but he also ranks just 23rd in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. Dalton, in comparison, ranks 31st and 27th in those categories. The Bengals’ pass defense isn’t a pure strength, but it can hold up against a quarterback who’s serviceable or worse. Fitzpatrick is also the Dolphins’ leading rusher with just 219 yards, and that about speaks for itself.
Going beyond the numbers, this is Taylor’s first time coaching against the franchise that gave him his first chance in the NFL. Taylor spent the first four years of his NFL career in Miami and worked with offensive line coach Jim Turner and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo down there as well. Taylor can brush this off as just another game, but it isn’t. The players know that, and he knows it too.
These next two games are going to mean a lot for the Bengals’ locker room, who have no intention of being a part of the second team to finish 2-14 or worse in franchise history. As it happens, these are two games they could absolutely win and if they do, they will no longer be atop of the draft order due to the strength of schedule tiebreaker unless the Dolphins beat the Patriots and Giants and Redskins each finish 4-12. The odds of that happening are as slim as you’d think.
So, let’s put that picture of Joe Burrow being given a Bengals helmet by Boomer Esiason away until it’s actually time.