If the playoffs began today, the Cincinnati Bengals would be in, even with their loss at Pittsburgh yesterday. Despite the media meme that the Bengals were "exposed" in Pittsburgh, they still control their own playoff destiny.
That said, the Bengals have a tough row to hoe during the last quarter of the season to maintain that control. With three-fourths of the NFL regular season in the books, let's see how things might shake out between now and New Year's Day.
The Bengals' hopes for an AFC North title are pretty much nil. They trail both Pittsburgh and Baltimore by two games with four left. It would take an epic collapse by both squads to open that door back up for Cincinnati. Furthermore, whoever comes in second between those two has a stranglehold on the first wild card spot. That means that Cincinnati is fighting for the final playoff spot the rest of the way.
Five other teams stand at least at 7-5, tied with Cincinnati. The Bengals have the advantage right now because of a better AFC overall record than the rest. Looking at the remaining schedules, it would appear the Bengals will have to go no worse than 3-1 over their final four to remain in the hunt. That means this week's game at home against the Houston Texans (9-3) is crucial. A loss to the Texans would mean that the Bengals would have to win out their final three games (at St. Louis and home against Arizona and Baltimore) to have a chance. In the Bengals favor in this game is the Houston injury situation. Rookie TJ Yates is their starter now and Andre Johnson left yesterday's game with another leg injury. Still, Houston has arguably the best running attack in the NFL and the league's top rated defense.
Assuming the Bengals can go at least 3-1, they would finish at 10-6 with a 7-5 AFC record. Here's how it looks for the rest of the contenders:
Houston: The Texans are 9-3, but as mentioned above, in a tenuous position. Tennessee sits two games back and still has one more game left with Houston the final week of the season. Even so, Houston has Carolina and Indianapolis as their other two games. In the worst case scenario, Houston goes 1-3 (beating Indy) and finishes 10-6. They would still have a better AFC South record than the Titans and would win that head to head tiebreaker.
That puts the Tennessee Titans into the wild card mix. Tennessee has games remaining against New Orleans, Indianapolis and Jacksonville in addition to the final game at Houston. If the Titans go 3-1 and sneak into the wild card equation, much would depend on how other teams fared. If it's just Cincinnati and Tennessee, then the Bengals get the nod by virtue of their victory over the Titans. If more than one team is involved, then Tennessee's projected 8-4 AFC record would sideline Cincinnati.
The team most likely to be that third wheel is the New York Jets. The Jets have the Chiefs, Eagles, Giants, and Dolphins remaining on their schedule. They'll be heavy favorites against Kansas City and Philadelphia. The Giants game and the trip to a resurgent Miami are possible places to fall. If the Jets theoretically went 3-1, with only a loss to the Giants, they would finish 10-6 with a 7-5 AFC mark. They wouldn't get in over Tennessee, but their presence in the equation would knock out the Bengals. Because of tie breakers, the Jets really need to win out to get in.
That leaves the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos. Oakland's loss in Miami this weekend coupled with more Tim Tebow heroics in Minnesota gives the Broncos the upper hand. The Raiders have the Packers, Lions, Chiefs and Chargers left. That looks like 2-2 and a 9-7 finish, putting them on the outside looking in. The Broncos would win the AFC West by going 3-1 against the Bears, Patriots, Bills, and Chiefs. The game at Buffalo is no "gimme" for the Broncos, but they seem to have some magic going right now. Denver winning the AFC West is also best for the Bengals as they are the lone team in the equation holding a head to head tie breaker against them.
So, in a nutshell, the Bengals need to go at least 3-1. 9-7 won't get them in. Bengals fans also need to root for opponents of the Jets and Titans to give the Bengals a little more breathing room.
Yesterday's loss to Pittsburgh hurt, but it did not ruin Cincinnati's post season hopes. And in the larger context, who even thought back in August we would be having this discussion?
Bengals 101 will have further breakdowns of the game against Houston later this week, so stay locked in here for your best Bengals and NFL coverage.
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