We’ve reached the point in the NFL calendar where a handful of teams have booked their tickets to the playoffs, leaving only the question of which place in the tournament they’ll occupy. In the weak 2017 AFC, that class is comprised of four teams: New England, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Tennessee.
It’s not an equal class, by any stretch – New England and Pittsburgh are in on merit. Jacksonville and Tennessee aren’t bad, but clearly benefit from playing in a division with two injury-marred teams that lack the means to pressure them. The same could once be said of Kansas City, but the formerly 5-0 squad has done everything possible in the past seven weeks to open up competition in the disappointing AFC West.
For the Bengals, who’ve risen to a 5-6 record after stepping over the woebegone Broncos and Browns, there’s opportunity here. Is it one that the team is capable of capitalizing on?
According to Bill Barnwell of ESPN, it’s entirely possible.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)
Playoff odds: 5.7 percent
Nobody gets excited by the Bengals at this point, but they’re quietly rounding into form, especially on offense. The Andrew Whitworth-less offensive line was a disaster early in the season, and I’m still not sure I trust Cedric Ogbuehi at left tackle, but this passing game might have turned the corner.
The offense might not need to contribute all that much, either. The Bengals’ defense ranked 12th in DVOA heading into this week’s game against the Browns, which saw them allow 405 yards while holding DeShone Kizer & Co. to 16 points. Cleveland was one of the reasons why the Bengals had the easiest remaining slate of opposing offenses heading into the week; after the Steelers next week, the Bengals finish up with the Bears, Vikings, Lions and Ravens.
Of the six AFC teams in Barnwell’s eleven-team list, the Bengals rank second to the Los Angeles Chargers and ahead of (in order) the Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins. Unfortunately, their 5.7 percent chance of making the playoffs (pulled from the ESPN Football Power Index, which has since been updated) was the fourth-highest mark, behind the Chargers (38.5), Bills (22.4) and Texans (6.7).
(Since Monday, the Bengals’ odds have risen to 6.2 percent, while the Chargers (37.5), the Bills (19.8), and the Texans (2.2) all dropped.)
What does all this mean for the Bengals? Not much. The Chargers could easily take the AFC West from the Chiefs, whom they’re now only a game behind. The Bills are on the wrong side of a head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to the Bengals win in Week 5. The Texans dropped to 4-7 on Monday and have all but eliminated themselves from contention. None of them are necessarily direct competitors.
The real roadblock here are the Ravens, whom the Bengals face in the last game of the season. At 6-5 with a head-to-head tiebreaker, no other team on the schedule is more relevant. If the Bengals win three of the four games against the preceding slate (Pittsburgh, Chicago, at Minnesota, and Detroit), that final game should be a win-and-in proposition. In the 2017 AFC, 9-7 looks like enough for the playoffs.
That being said: can the Bengals make that run? If they’re as good as Barnwell believes they are, it’s within reason.
We’ll see how they perform against playoff-caliber competition this Monday.