The Cincinnati Bengals have had an up-and-down season in Joe Burrow’s second year as an NFL starting quarterback. At 5-2, with wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers as well as a near upset of the Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati looked liked a team ready to burst on to the NFL playoff scene. But the Bengals went 2-4 in their next six games, including embarrassing losses to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, to enter Week 15 with a 7-6 record. This record but the Bengals in a messy web in the standings, tied with four other teams for the conference’s final wild card spot.

The Denver Broncos were one of those teams, making Sunday’s matchup at Mile High even more important. A Bengals win was set to be fruitful on multiple fronts: getting Cincinnati to 8-6, defeating another wildcard contender, and gaining a head-to-head win over Denver in the event of a tie at the end of the season.

The matchup with Teddy Bridgewater and the Broncos was a slug fest, with the Bengals taking a narrow 6-3 lead at halftime as each team could only muster long, 50+ yard field goals. Bridgewater was carted off the field in the second half, forcing Drew Lock to take over at quarterback. Lock connected with wide receiver Tim Patrick in the third quarter on a 25-yard touchdown pass to put Denver up 10-9, but the Bengals answered just two plays later, with Burrow and wide receiver Tyler Boyd hooking up for a 56-yard touchdown connection.

Lock and the Broncos were threatening to strike back, knocking on the door of Cincinnati’s endzone, before defensive end Khalid Kareem made an incredible play, snatching the ball directly out of Lock’s hands and running with it, before fumbling it himself in what would still ultimately be the Bengals ball.

It may not have been the prettiest of wins: the Bengals had just 12 first downs and Burrow threw for just 136 passing yards, but a win is a win. The Bengals prevailed 15-10 in Denver to improve their record to 8-6 and keep up in the AFC playoff race with just three games to go.

But Cincinnati didn’t just improve their wildcard position, they outright took the AFC North lead in Week 15 after Tyler Huntley the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Green Bay Packers by the narrowest of margins.

The Bengals and Ravens are now both 8-6, but Cincinnati currently holds the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of their 41-17 win over Baltimore in Week 7. As icing on the cake for Bengals fans, the Ravens fall out of the playoff picture entirely, currently on the outside looking in as one of four 8-6 teams with only three wildcard spots available (held by the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers, and Buffalo Bills.)

So that’s the good news, the great news: the Bengals have taken first place in the AFC North with just three weeks left in the regular season. However, with the AFC North being so tight and some strong opponents over their final three games, Cincinnati will still need to claw their way through the final three weeks of the season.

The Bengals next matchup is their most important: their second and final meeting with the Ravens, this time at home. If the Bengals can complete a season sweep of the Ravens, the AFC North lead will be much firmer, as Baltimore would need an outright better record than Cincinnati to reclaim the division lead.

Cincinnati’s final two games are a home matchup with Patrick Mahomes and the 10-4 Kansas City Chiefs, and lastly a Week 18 matchup with Baker Mayfield and the Browns in Cleveland.

At time of writing, the Browns haven’t taken the field yet against the Las Vegas Raiders. If Cleveland overcomes their COVID adversity and improves to 8-6, they’ll be just as much a threat to the Bengals as anyone. The Browns already have a head-to-head win over the Bengals, but Cincinnati could even the score with a Week 18 win. If Cleveland is still in play for either the AFC North, a wildcard spot, or both, this Week 18 matchup could be the league’s pick for the final primetime game of the regualr season.

The Bengals currently have the best record in the AFC North in divisional play at 3-1, and could finish 5-1 with wins over Baltimore and Cleveland. Conversely, dropping both those games would sink the Bengals AFC North record to 3-3, eliminating the chance of overcoming Baltimore or Cleveland on tiebreakers. The Bengals swept the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, but are unlikely to find themselves tied with the Steelers due to the tie on their record.

Paths to the Playoffs

  • Win out, win the division: If the Bengals can beat the Ravens, Chiefs, and Browns over the final three weeks, Cincinnati will win the AFC North at 11-6 and could earn a seed as high as 1st in the AFC (if the Chiefs lose another game) or as low as 4th (if the Titans and Patriots finish with 11 or more wins.)
  • Beat the Ravens and Browns, likely win the division: If the Bengals can overcome both their AFC North rivals in Weeks 16 and 18, the AFC North would still likely be theirs. Cincinnati would finish 10-7, with a head-to-head tiebreaker over Baltimore and a superior 5-1 divisional record to overcome any ties with Cleveland. This scenario does open the door for the Steelers to win the AFC North by winning out and finishing 10-6-1, but Pittsburgh has the same three tough opponents as the Bengals: Kansas City, Baltimore, and Cleveland. Beating the Ravens and Browns would give the Bengals a 99% chance to make the playoffs, as well as a 95% chance to win the AFC North.
  • Win any two games: If the Bengals can beat the Chiefs, and then either the Browns or Ravens, they’re still likely to qualify for the postseason. Per New York Times simulations, the Bengals would have a 95% or greater chance to make the playoffs if they win any two of their final three games. If Cincinnati loses to say, Baltimore, the Ravens could ultimately win the AFC North by winning out, but the Bengals would still have a wildcard spot to fall back on. It’s worth noting that Cincinnati had a head-to-head loss against the Chargers, but head-to-head wins over the Broncos and Raiders, as well as a solid 6-3 conference record that could be beneficial if multiple teams tie for a wildcard position.
  • Beat the Ravens or Browns, and get help: Beating only the Chiefs would give Cincinnati a mere 9% chance to make the playoffs this season. If the Bengals go 1-2 in their final three games, they could still make the postseason, but they need that win to be over Baltimore or Cleveland. Beating only the Ravens would give the Bengals a 28% chance to make the playoffs, while beating only the Browns would actually give Cincinnati a 31% chance of advancing to the postseason.

The Bengals have to win at least one of their final three games to qualify for the playoffs: they would have a 0% chance of advancing if they go 0-3 in their final three games.

Cincinnati’s final three opponents will be anything but easy, and yet the Bengals have a clear path to the postseason. If they can win their matchups, specifically against the Ravens and Browns, Cincinnati shouldn’t need to rely on outside help to make the playoffs this season.

The Bengals can still earn the top seed in the AFC and a first-round bye, or miss the playoffs entirely. All Joe Burrow and company can do right now is take it one game at a time and play their best football. Where will it land the Bengals at the end of Week 18? Only time will tell.

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Header Photo: Broncos Wire/USA Today

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