The Cincinnati Bengals' path to the playoffs got a little bit bumpier after their Week 14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, but the train hasn't derailed yet. However, even though the Bengals do ultimately control their own destiny, the pressure is much higher after the loss.
Thankfully for Cincinnati, both teams lost, meaning all three remain in the race for the AFC North title; the two that don't win the division will battle it out for what is now looking like just one AFC wild-card playoff berth.
With a win on Sunday over the Houston Texans, the Indianapolis Colts will claim one of two available wild-card spots. Of course, defeating the Texans might be a tall order for the Colts, but it is also hard to imagine the Colts not winning at least one more game in their remaining three.
In that sense, it's fair to assume the wild-card race comes down primarily to the three AFC North teams in the playoff hunt, with the Ravens presently holding the advantage over both the Bengals and Steelers when it comes to winning the division.
The simplest way for the Bengals to get into the postseason is to win out.
In fact, that could also do much to help their odds of becoming AFC North champions. In their final two weeks, the Bengals face the Steelers first and then the Ravens.
With Baltimore currently on a two-game slide and faced with a difficult remaining schedule (the Washington Redskins this week, the New York Giants in the next and the season-ender against the Bengals), its 9-4 record could quickly become 9-6.
If that's the case headed into Week 17, the division may be decided by the meeting between the Ravens and Bengals—that is, as long as the Bengals don't lose any more games.
Fortunately for the Bengals, they have the Eagles up first on Thursday night. Despite winning in Week 14, the Eagles are a team in trouble while the Bengals aren't particularly known for playing down to their opponents.
There were missteps in how the Bengals handled—or failed to handle, rather—the Cowboys this past Sunday, indicators that the strong team with the four-game win streak may be reverting to the shaky one that lost four straight earlier this season.
Something the Bengals need more than anything is a receiver who can score touchdowns when A.J. Green has been neutralized, like he was against the Cowboys.
On defense, the Bengals are pretty set—they've given up just one passing touchdown in two games and they rank sixth overall in average yards allowed per game.
As long as Andy Dalton and Green can re-establish their scoring connection, BenJarvus Green-Ellis continues to run well and the defense doesn't take any steps backwards, it's entirely possible the Bengals don't lose another game this season and head into the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
There are ways the Bengals can reach the playoffs without winning all three of their remaining games. It will just require help from other teams. If the Bengals win this Thursday, but then lose next week to the Steelers, then only the Ravens losing their final three games—or the Steelers losing their other two—will put Cincinnati in the playoffs.
Also, not to be ignored (though not to be taken entirely seriously) are the New York Jets.
The Jets are currently 6-7, on a two-game win streak, and have a relatively favorable schedule to end the year (Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills). However they also rank 26th in points and 30th in yards and have put up just 216 total passing yards over their past two games.
Numerically, they threaten the Bengals, but their on-field performance belies the potential for a playoff run in the immediate future.
While a bit of help from their divisional foes will go a long way to help the Bengals' postseason chances, the surefire way to reach the playoffs is to win their next three games. Two straight AFC North contests to close the season isn't an easy way to get there, but if the Bengals want to assure themselves a playoff spot—as well as prove they are worthy of it—getting those wins is necessary.