The Cincinnati Bengals could be playoff-bound for the second season in a row as a recent string of victories has placed them directly in the Wild Card race.
Cincinnati has won three straight games, with the most notable victory coming against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
The Bengals are now tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for second place in the AFC North with a 6-5 record. Pittsburgh (6-5) and the Indianapolis Colts (7-4) currently have a hold on the two Wild Card seeds in the AFC.
Andy Dalton and the offense are averaging 25.6 points per game, good for No. 10 in the league. Geno Atkins and the defense are limiting opposing offenses to 334.5 yards per game, which ranks the unit No. 9 overall in the NFL.
A large part of the Bengals' recent success is second-year quarterback Dalton, who has thrown for 639 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions in the last three games. He's been spectacular behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, so the positive play should continue the rest of the way.
Cincinnati has firmly placed itself in the postseason race, which means each of the five remaining games are critical. The road to the postseason is by no means a simple task despite the hot streak the Bengals are currently riding.
The next three games for the Bengals are huge. Traveling to San Diego in Week 13 is no easy task. The Chargers are laughably bad at 4-7 under Norv Turner, but the Bengals are horrendous on West Coast trips.
It's a trap game of the biggest proportions.
Week 14 sees the Bengals welcoming the erratic Dallas Cowboys to Cincinnati in another potential trap game. The 'Boys are 5-6 but have enough talent to light up the scoreboard. Finally, the Bengals travel to face the lowly Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15.
Then things get rough for Cincinnati.
The Bengals have two AFC North matchups to finish off the 2012 campaign, the first against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger should be back and fully healthy by this point, meaning the game will all but decide whether Cincinnati can slip by the Steelers for the final Wild Card spot.
To finish off the season, Cincinnati welcomes the 9-2 Ravens to town. At this point, the Bengals will still be jockeying for playoff position, or merely playing spoiler. The Ravens have been shaky as of late and have a brutal home stretch to round out the season.
Simply put, the Bengals need to take care of their own business and not concern themselves with how the others are performing.
Indianapolis seems to have a hold on the first Wild Card spot, especially considering the easy schedule the rest of the way outside of two matchups with the Houston Texans. The Colts have been decimated when facing legitimate competition such as the New England Patriots, but they would have to experience a colossal nosedive to miss the postseason at this point.
Things aren't as bright for the Steelers considering they have witnessed their lead on Cincinnati and hold on the Wild Card spot evaporate over the past two weeks. Pittsburgh has lost its past two games with Roethlisberger out with rib and shoulder injuries.
Roethlisberger may or may not be back for his team's pivotal matchup in Week 13 against the AFC North-leading Ravens. However, he'll most likely be back for the final four games, which appear to be a cakewalk if he is playing at a high level.
After the Ravens, Pittsburgh plays the Chargers, Cowboys, Bengals and Cleveland Browns. In other words, the most difficult game appears to be with Cincinnati. Once again, it's a matchup that will more than likely decide the playoff fate of the Bengals.
When examining whether or not the Bengals can slip into the playoffs, we need to consider a few things. Cincinnati has played amazingly well the past few weeks, but those wins have come against two horrible teams and a New York squad that was clearly in a slump.
Still, things look good for Cincinnati. One has to remember that the Steelers hold the tiebreaker after beating the Bengals earlier in the season, so an identical record isn't an option. However, the Steelers are banged up, and we saw last season how horrible the Steelers can be with Roethlisberger less than 100 percent healthy (they did manage to lose to the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos).
As far as Indianapolis goes, the hold it has on the first Wild Card seed isn't as firm as it appears. The Colts are led by a rookie quarterback in Andrew Luck. He's played amazingly well, but that still has its pitfalls.
In a nutshell, we like the Bengals' chances of slipping into the postseason with the level the team is currently playing at.
Cincinnati is maturing before our eyes. If the Bengals can keep up this stellar play, the sixth seed could be a guarantee and the fifth seed isn't out of the question.
Odds the Bengals sneak into the postseason: 60 percent