It's Week 12 in the NFL, and the perfect time to start thinking about what the eventual playoff picture may look like.
Though the Cincinnati Bengals are just 5-5 at the moment, they're very much in postseason contention. It will just take both wins on their part and the compliance of other teams around the AFC North to put them on the field in January for the second straight year.
Let's see how the Bengals may find themselves in the playoffs this season.
The Crucial Next Two Weeks
In Weeks 11 through 13, the Bengals face three straight AFC West opponents. Last week, they handily defeated the one-win Kansas City Chiefs, 28-6, and this week they host the Oakland Raiders before heading to San Diego to face the Chargers.
If the Bengals can win these three games, there's a chance they can leapfrog the Pittsburgh Steelers in the win category and further increase their chances of snagging a Wild Card playoff berth.
The Bengals haven't been terribly consistent this season; they started the year at 3-1 before losing four games straight. They've had a turnaround over their last two games, defeating first the New York Giants, 31-13, before last week's drubbing of the Chiefs.
In the nearly two seasons Andy Dalton has been the Bengals quarterback, the Giants win was without question their biggest.
A major critique of this team has been its inability to defeat teams with winning records or playoff experience. Though the Bengals have just one under their belt thus far, it's a significant victory—over the defending Super Bowl champions, nonetheless—that provides them a mental edge they had previously been lacking.
Also, Dalton's Bengals haven't been prone to playing down to their opponents, despite losses this year to both the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. They generally know how to defeat the beatable teams on their schedule, which bodes well for their chances this week over the visiting Raiders.
The key to defeating the Raiders is to simply pull ahead with a lead early and don't let it go.
The Raiders cannot run the ball, the offensive line isn't protecting quarterback Carson Palmer all that well despite the maddening late-game passing numbers he's putting up, and they lack talent in the secondary to adequately contain Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The Raiders simply aren't built to catch up when playing from behind—a Dalton-to-Green touchdown strike early should be enough to ultimately put the game away.
The Chargers in the following week are a bit more of a test.
They are currently on a two-game losing streak and host the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday. They have been as error-prone as we've ever seen them with Philip Rivers as their quarterback, but they're still dangerous on offense. The Bengals will have to continue to execute on the level we saw against the Giants—and approach them similarly—to pull out this particular road win.
There is nothing like a pair of sub-.500 opponents to help a team in the Bengals' position improve their playoff situation. If the true identity of the Bengals is the version of the team we've seen over the last two weeks, they'll get these wins and become a tough team to beat down the stretch.
Around the AFC North
Another way the Bengals can get into the playoffs this year is via a helping hand in their division. Though the Ravens at 8-2 won't likely falter all that much in the remainder of the season, allowing the Bengals to take the lead, it's quite possible that a series of Pittsburgh Steelers losses could come at the perfect time for Cincinnati, as long as the Bengals also keep up their winning ways.
With four divisional contests left, the Steelers have a lot to either lose or gain in the remaining weeks of the season.
They are coming off of a loss to the Ravens in Week 11, have to face the Cleveland Browns this Sunday with 37-year-old Charlie Batch under center, and they are also banged up in the receiving corps, resulting in the team bringing back Plaxico Burress.
After that Browns game, they face off a second time against the Ravens; later, they close their season with home games against Cleveland and Cincinnati both. Depending on their injury situation, the Steelers could drop at least half, if not three or even all four of these remaining games, putting the Bengals in good position for a Wild Card playoff berth.
More than likely, the Bengals' chances for that berth will come down to their Week 16 meeting with the Steelers. A win the next week, against the Ravens, would just be icing on the cake—however, it becomes a must-win situation should they fall to the Steelers the week prior.
However, all this doesn't mean the Bengals need to look past the games before those final two. All of these scenarios regarding the Steelers losing their footing are moot if the Bengals cannot get wins of their own. They are on somewhat of a hot streak at the best time of the year, but they need to maintain it if they are going to take full advantage of the potential challenges ahead for the Steelers.