The Bengals are currently seventh in the AFC, with both Indianapolis and Pittsburgh ahead of them in the playoff seeding, while the Cowboys are eighth in the NFC standings, trailing Washington, Seattle, and Chicago for one of those coveted wild-card slots. Only six teams make the playoffs in both conferences, so both the Bengals and Cowboys are currently on the outside looking in.
However, this is a much bigger game for the Bengals than it is the Cowboys. The Cowboys—even with a loss—still have an outside shot at the NFC East division title if the New York Giants were to lose to the New Orleans Saints today. The Bengals, meanwhile, have only one real hope—the sixth wild-card slot.
Several factors will have to break the Bengals' way if they hope to steal that sixth spot in the AFC, and here are four reasons why this game is so important to their chances.
This is a live-to-fight-another-day type week for the Cincinnati Bengals. The Indianapolis Colts have played great over the past few weeks, and their dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Detroit Lions last week showed that Andrew Luck undoubtedly possesses the poise and leadership that the Colts thought he did when they drafted first overall in this year's draft.
The Tennessee Titans come into the game losers of four of their past five games and lacking a real identity. Their offense is below average, their defense is below average, and they don't seem to have a plan for the future.
A Colts win puts them in prime position for the fifth spot in the AFC, with nine wins and only three games remaining. The lone bright spot for Bengals fans is that the Colts have to face the league-leading Houston Texans twice in their last three games.
That doesn't matter today, though. Expect the Colts to win this one 31-16.
The San Diego Chargers proved last week that they are a tough team to finish off, but the Bengals ultimately finished them off, and now they've lost seven of their past eight games. Their lone win was against the hapless Kansas Chiefs.
Enter the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are 7-5 and coming off a season-saving victory over the Baltimore Ravens last week. They'll get their leader and signal-caller back under center today when Ben Roethlisberger returns from injury after missing the past three games. I'm expecting to see a rejuvenated Steelers team dominate from start to finish.
A win for Pittsburgh means they keep their advantage over the Bengals and pick up an additional AFC win, and an additional "common game" win. These are two of the top four tie breakers and could put the Bengals in a difficult position even if they beat Pittsburgh in Week 16.
Final score prediction: Steelers 35, Chargers 14
For all intents and purposes, the Bengals only really have three games left in the 2012 season. The Ravens embarrassed them so badly in Week 1 that we'd be crazy to think they have any shot against them in Week 17.
Yes, this is a slightly better team than their Week 1 version that lost to Baltimore 44-13, but the Ravens are in a different class this year. They have a legit chance at a Super Bowl this year, and their roster is filled with smart football players who tend to make plays when it matters.
The only sliver of hope for Bengals fans is that it's possible Baltimore will have the division and their playoff seeding wrapped before the game. This could cause the Ravens to rest their starters and give Cincinnati a real shot against their second-string offense.
If we go ahead and count the Ravens game as a loss, then that means the Bengals will definitely lose the division tie-breaker with Pittsburgh, making it that much more important that they have a better record than the Steelers and not end up in a tie-breaking scenario.
The Bengals have seven wins this year. Those seven teams are:
It's hard to take much pride in making the playoffs and hard to have much confidence in your team's ability when you've only defeated one team with a winning record.
The Cowboys are 6-6, so they don't qualify as a team with a winning record right now, but they have all of the tools in place on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball to ultimately be considered the best non-AFC North division team the Bengals will face all season.
A win over Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and everything the Dallas Cowboys represent would be a huge lift to a young Bengals team that is still trying to find out if they really belong in the playoffs.
My prediction: Bengals lose a heartbreaker, 30-27.