Forget setting an NFL record for the highest completion percentage in one of a quarterback’s first two starts. Ignore snapping a 15-game prime-time road losing streak. And pshaw to overcoming a 4-35 record when trailing after three quarters in the last five seasons.
The most impressive thing Jake Browning did Monday night may have been rekindling playoff hopes among an angry, jaded Cincinnati Bengals fan base.
With a 34-31 overtime victory at Jacksonville on the strength of Browning’s 32-of-37 performance for 354 yards and a touchdown, the Bengals improved to 6-6 to stay one game out of the final Wild Card spot.
How Do the Cincinnati Bengals Make the Playoffs in 2023?
With the assistance of PFN’s NFL Playoff Predictor, let’s examine what Cincinnati needs to happen between now and the end of the season to make the playoffs, whether that be as a Wild Card or the Mega Millions-like shot at winning the AFC North division.
At 6-6, the Bengals don’t need to run the table to have a chance to make the postseason for a third year in a row, but it could increase their odds greatly if they do.
If they win their final five to finish 11-6, it’s almost impossible to envision a scenario where they wouldn’t get in.
But even going 4-1 in their final five would get them to 10-7, and since the NFL expanded the playoffs to seven teams per conference in 2020, there has only been one 10-win team that failed to qualify for the playoffs — the 10-6 Miami Dolphins in 2020.
On the flip side of that, there have been five nine-win teams who have earned Wild Card berths, so even a 3-2 finish wouldn’t guarantee elimination.
Cincinnati is currently 10th in the AFC playoff standings, but they’re only one game out of all three Wild Card spots, which currently belong to the 7-5 triumvirate of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, and Indianapolis Colts — the team the Bengals will play at Paycor Stadium on Sunday.
ESPN’s Football Power Index (PFI) gives the Bengals a 12.7% chance of making the playoffs, ballooning from the 3.4% chance they had before beating the Jaguars.
Running the table would have been a difficult task even before Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending wrist injury so that 12.7 number seems optimistically high with Jake Browning at the helm.
Or does it? After watching what the offense, with Tee Higgins back in the fold, accomplished against a good Jacksonville defense on Monday, there’s reason for optimism.
Beyond not having Burrow, the biggest issue facing the Bengals is the fact that they are 2-6 in conference games. They’re also 0-4 in division games, which could have a bearing on NFL tiebreakers as well because in the event there are three or more teams tied for a Wild Card spot, the first step is to whittle it down to only one team per division by using the divisional tiebreaker formula.
However, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head, and one of the Bengals’ conference wins is against a Buffalo team that is 6-6 and in a similar position. Cincinnati also has the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Jaguars if the Houston Texans knock them off in the AFC South. And a win Sunday would give the Bengals a head-to-head edge on the Colts.
If you’re a Cincinnati fan holding out hope for a playoff run, you also should be rooting for the Texans. Houston (7-5) already has a win against the Bengals, so the best-case scenario would be for the Texans to win the AFC South and leave the Jaguars (8-4) and Colts (7-5) fighting for Wild Card spots.
And as much as it may pain Bengals fans, they also need to root for the Ravens, who already have completed a season sweep. Cincinnati still has games remaining against the Steelers (7-5) and Browns (7-5). And if the premise here is winning out, that knocks both of those teams down to six losses to match the Bengals.
Pittsburgh and Cleveland each have three division wins already, so both would win a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bengals even if Cincinnati salvages a season sweep with them. So either the Bengals need to hope for a scenario where all four teams in the AFC North make the playoffs, or they need the Browns or Steelers to finish with a worse record.
Here are their remaining schedules:
Browns (7-5): Jaguars (8-4), Bears (4-8), at Texans (7-5), Jets (4-8), at Bengals (6-6)
Steelers (7-5): Patriots (2-10), at Colts (6-6), Bengals (6-6), at Seahawks (6-6), at Ravens (9-3)
If you want to take a more historical view of things, there have been 86 teams to start 6-6 since the NFL to the current division alignment in 200, and 27 (31.3%) have made the playoffs.
If the Bengals beat the Colts to get to 7-6, their chances jump to 37% (31 of 84).
Can the Bengals Still Win the AFC North?
ESPN’s FPI gives the Bengals a 0.2% chance, but it’s not zero.
Baltimore leads Cincinnati by three games and has the tiebreaker edge via the season sweep. That means the Bengals have to finish with a better record. Running the table leaves the Bengals 11-6, which means the Ravens can only win one remaining game.
Baltimore has a difficult schedule to close the season, but the idea of the Ravens going 1-4 in their final five seems more outlandish than the Bengals going 5-0, or even 4-1.
But Baltimore’s remaining schedule is difficult:
Ravens (9-3): Rams (6-6), at Jaguars (8-4), at 49ers (9-3), Dolphins (9-3), Steelers (7-5).
What Are the Rooting Interests for the Bengals?
Any time a team finds itself in the position the Bengals currently sit in, scoreboard-watching becomes a part of the process.
Below are the Week 14 games that matter and which side Bengals fans should back, ranked in order of importance.
Patriots at Steelers: Patriots
Texans at Jets: Texans
Jaguars at Browns: Browns
Bills at Chiefs: Chiefs
Broncos at Chargers: Chargers
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