While discussing what lies ahead if the Bengals were to beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday is likely to draw the ire of those not wanting to "jinx" proceedings, it is certainly an outcome worth considering.
If Jay Gruden and Andy Dalton can find an answer for the stout Baltimore Ravens defense and come out with a win, the Bengals will snare the sixth seed and travel to Houston to take on the Texans on Wild Card Weekend.
It would be foolish to look past the Baltimore Ravens, and there's no doubt that the Bengals will be underdogs in this one, but fans wouldn't be fans if they didn't engage in some optimistic speculation, despite the difficult task facing their team.
So, let's speculate. The Bengals finish the season 10-6 and travel to Reliant Stadium, their confidence bolstered by a big divisional win over a Superbowl contender the week prior. The danger within that is clear, there is potential for the Bengals to put so much into their final game of the year that it becomes their "Superbowl," and as a result they struggle the following week.
But the Bengals are no stranger to the T.J. Yates-led Houston Texans, having lost to them 20-19 in heartbreaking fashion back in Week 14. Cincy had their way for the most part in their first meeting, before a collapse in the game's latter stages.
Their performance was impressive enough to convince fans that the Bengals could take the Texans down if the two sides were to meet again, but the AFC South Champions will likely have Andre Johnson back in the fold, as well as having Wade Phillips back on the sidelines.
However, since their win in Cincinnati, the Texans have lost to the Carolina Panthers and the woeful Indianapolis Colts. The wheels may be coming off the wagon for T.J. Yates and Co., and this week's meeting with the Tennessee Titans will tell us a lot about who they are going to be come playoff time.
Though with little to play for, the Texans' main concern will be regaining focus four weeks after they clinched a playoff spot.
If the Bengals can put together four quarters of football—with the special teams and defense continuing to give more than a helping hand to Andy Dalton's offense in the manner they did against Arizona—there is no reason to believe Cincy couldn't win their first playoff game in 20 years. They may go on to be stuffed by the Patriots the following week, but there is no end to the positives that would be taken from a single playoff victory this year.
There is little doubt that right now, the Baltimore Ravens matchup will be considerably more difficult for the Bengals to win than a rematch with the Texans would be. If Cincy can overcome a Baltimore Ravens team playing for a bye, they could go on with confidence and have success in the postseason.
If you're a Cincinnati fan, you have to like the potential Houston matchup. While Bengals fans are all too used to disappointment, and as such tend not to speculate too far into the future, it's hard not to consider what may be.
Regardless of the result on Sunday, there is clearly a renewed sense of optimism amongst Bengals fans that has laid dormant for what has felt like forever. A new era is well and truly here, and win or lose, it's great to be a Bengals fan right now.
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