The Cincinnati Bengals find themselves in a position to take a trip to the 2012 NFL playoffs, but it's going to take a great performance the rest of the way in order to sneak in for the second consecutive season.
Week 14 saw the Bengals ruin a perfect opportunity to not only move closer to a Wild Card, but closer in the AFC North. Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens lost, which was the perfect opportunity for Cincinnati to make a splash.
Instead, the Bengals lost a heart-breaker to the Dallas Cowboys, 20-19.
Cincinnati was mediocre at best against Dallas, which is not what we are used to seeing from a team that just won four straight games to place itself in the postseason conversation in the first place.
On offense the Bengals missed a plethora of scoring opportunities courtesy of dropped passes and miscommunications. For an offense that is ranked No. 10 overall with 25 points scored per game, it was the definition of a let-down.
The Bengals currently sit at 7-6, an identical record to the Steelers, a team that holds the sixth seed and the last Wild Card spot in the AFC. Pittsburgh holds the tiebreaker over the Bengals courtesy of head-to-head record.
The remaining schedule for the Bengals is tough, and it could take the Bengals winning out to pass Pittsburgh. Cincinnati has a quick turnaround after the loss to Dallas, with a Week 15 Thursday Night Football matchup looming with the Philadelphia Eagles.
After that, it's two straight AFC North bouts for the Bengals as they travel to Pittsburgh in Week 16 and welcome the Ravens to Cincinnati to close out the season.
The keys for the Bengals to make the postseason are simple. Defensively the Bengals need to keep playing at a high level. This means limiting big plays and continuing to generate a consistent pass rush.
Cincinnati only registered 2.5 sacks of Tony Romo against Dallas, and it eventually cost the team the game. Pressure is key, and with talented linemen such as Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, pressure should come consistently over the next few weeks.
Offensively the Bengals need to correct a few things in order to make a postseason push. For one, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Co. need to realize that running the ball isn't always the answer.
Sure, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for over 100 yards in each of the three contests leading up to the game against Dallas, but those came against extremely weak opponents. The Bengals are now built to run a passing-oriented attack, and do.
Passing is the only way the Bengals are going to generate enough points to defeat the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Cincinnati has more than enough talent to do just that with players such as A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Hawkins and more.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been excellent all season and is clearly benefiting from the offense built around him. The biggest key for the Bengals at this stage in the season is going to be coaching.
The entire season for the Bengals is going to hinge on the Week 16 game in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have arguably the best defense in the NFL, so Dalton is going to have to be pinpoint accurate and the play-calling from Gruden is going to have to be pristine.
For Cincinnati, the road to the playoffs is simple. Take care of business by putting down a bad team Thursday night against the Eagles, then take advantage of a reeling Steelers team that just lost to a miserable San Diego squad.
While the final game of the season against the Ravens is likely important, it's the game against the Steelers that will ultimately decide if Cincinnati clinches a playoff berth.
How fitting. A bitter AFC North rivalry will once again determine who makes the postseason and has a chance at a Super Bowl.
For Cincinnati, simply executing the gameplan without mistakes will make all the difference between a second straight postseason appearance, or a disappointing finish and a "what could have been" attitude.