Though the Cincinnati Bengals have two games ahead of them, only this Sunday's contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers is of any immediate consequence. With a win in Pittsburgh, they clinch themselves a playoff spot at the very least. A win against the Steelers and a victory in Week 17 over the Baltimore Ravens and the Bengals clinch the AFC North title.
However, a loss the Steelers means that beating the Ravens won't matter much when it comes to Cincinnati's playoff hopes—at least based on how things presently stand. This week is the one that will define the Bengals season, the one that confirms whether the team is on the right track instead of still being on the erratic path they've forged for decades.
The Bengals haven't reached the playoffs in consecutive years since the 1981 and 1982 seasons (the latter being shortened by a strike), and they haven't had a playoff win since 1990. Defeating the Steelers will bring the former streak to an end; the latter will have to wait two weeks.
Over the course of this season, the Bengals have not been the most consistent of NFL teams. After a four-game losing earlier in the season, they then won four straight before splitting their last two contests. But these past two games say more about the Bengals and their season than the two streaks that made up the eight weeks prior.
It's these two games where we need to look for clues as to how they'll fare against the Steelers on Sunday.
In Week 14, the Bengals fell to the Dallas Cowboys, 20-19, after losing command of their nine-point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter. Too much passing near the end of the game left quarterback Andy Dalton vulnerable to making errors and being shaken by pressure, while the Bengals defense couldn't keep Dallas receiver Dez Bryant under wraps—he went from no catches in the first half, to four in the second for 50 yards and the fourth-quarter touchdown that closed the gap to two points.
It was an equally shaky performance in Week 15 when the Bengals ultimately trounced the Philadelphia Eagles, 34-13. Though they learned from their Week 14 mistakes and did not turn away from the running game in the second half—BenJarvus Green-Ellis ended the day with 25 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown—the passing game took a formidable step backward.
The Eagles abandoned the Wide 9 defensive formation and pressured Dalton more easily. The result was four first-half sacks, two of which resulted in Dalton turning the ball over—his first two lost fumbles of the season. He had only 76 yards passing in the first half and 127 in the game, with A.J. Green the only wide receiver to record a catch—or rather six of them, for 57 yards and a score.
What ultimately led to Cincinnati's win was a spate of Eagles miscues—including turnovers on four consecutive possessions in the second half. One was a Wallace Gilberry pick-six of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, while the other three turnovers set up two Bengal touchdowns and a field goal. The win was a major success for Cincinnati's defense (which also held the Eagles to mere 42 rush yards) and for Green-Ellis, but the core of the Bengals offense—the passing game—struggled for the second straight week.
To beat the Steelers and to be seen as a formidable playoff threat, the Bengals need to be more consistent and balanced on both sides of the ball; they need to look more like the team they were during their four-game winning streak earlier this season. In that span, Dalton threw or rushed for 12 touchdowns, Green-Ellis averaged 108 rushing yards per game, Green had a total of 372 yards and the defense notched four sacks per game and registered seven fumble recoveries and three interceptions.
A full four quarters of dominant play will be necessary to beat the Steelers on Sunday. Pittsburgh is coming off of a two-game losing streak, and the postseason also hangs in the balance for them. Pittsburgh's Week 15 loss doesn't make this a win-and-in situation like it does for Cincinnati, but, just like the Bengals, should the Steelers lose, there will be no postseason for them.
Desperation makes teams dangerous, especially ones like the Steelers, who have recent Super Bowl wins under their belt. The margin of error is, therefore, far slimmer for the Bengals this week than in any other game they've played this season. It's best that they approach this game as their first playoff matchup rather than just a Week 16 meeting between divisional rivals.
There is a lot of pressure on the Bengals this week. Whether they fold under that weight or rise to the occasion will do a lot to define what kind of team this is.