So now that the Bengals still have A.J. McCarron…
Yes, the failure to turn a backup quarterback into two valuable draft chips is agonizing, and will make Bengaldom’s collective blood boil come April. Leave it to the Browns to find a way to screw others with their incompetence. And if you don’t think they will somehow land a tremendous player with one of the picks that were destined for Cincinnati, you just haven’t been paying attention lo these many years.
But let’s concentrate on the positive, shall we? Thanks to Carlos Dunlap’s awesomely athletic moment on Sunday, the Bengals remain alive, however tenuously, in the AFC playoff picture. How slim is the finger hold? Even with the victory, Cincinnati’s playoff odds, per Football Outsiders, is but 9.0%—an 8.3% chance at a wild card berth, and just a 0.7% shot at somehow overtaking both Pittsburgh and Baltimore to capture the division title.
But a glimpse at the Ravens odds—a 40.5% chance at a wild card slot—ironically offers hopes to the Bengals. That Baltimore, a team which, despite shutting out Cincy in Week 1, is quite plainly no better than the Bengals, and at times looks flat out atrocious, has that good a chance points to the ineptitude of the AFC overall. The Bengals may not be that good (and clearly, they aren’t), but neither are any of the teams they are duking it out with for those last postseason spots.
Not exactly something to exult about, but it’s still too early to be looking ahead to 2018, so we take our optimism where we can find it.
How would a path forward to beating those long playoff odds look? The forthcoming three-game road trip (thanks, NFL!) is obviously crucial. Fortunately, it isn’t quite as intimidating as it seemed when the sked was first released, and the pitfalls involved have mutated. Indeed, the one game that many fans might have circled as a gimme before the season now looms as the toughest test of the trio: this Sunday at Jacksonville. And the automatic loss in Denver doesn’t seem quite as foreordained any more. Also, Jacksonville is the rare team that doesn’t hold a whammy over the Bengals historically. The Jags haven’t beaten Cincy since 2005, and Andy Dalton is 3-0 against them.
Alas, this year’s version of the Rainforest Cats sports a top defense, one that ranks first in the league in FO’s efficiency rankings (overall, Jax is 7th). Led by Calais Campbell, at the moment a frontrunner for defensive MVP, the team leads the league in sacks, and Jalen Ramsey fronts a pass defense that nearly doubles the efficiency of the second-place Broncos (the sacks have a lot to do with that, obviously, but the Jags are tough to throw on regardless, as Ben Roethlisberger discovered to his horror/society’s delight).
But there are weaknesses. Jacksonville is, incredibly, also the worst team in the league at defending the run (which shows how awesome the pass defense has been to compensate). Offensively, the Jags remain hobbled by their quarterback, Blake Bortles, who figures to struggle against Cincy’s pass defense. True, running and blocking are incredible weaknesses for the Bengals, but if they can find a way to win in North Florida, it could spur the playoff push decisively.
That’s because Tennessee and Denver follow, two disappointing teams that are essentially the Smoky and Rocky Mountain versions of Cincinnati. The Titans remain eau de meh—the team with the fewest mistakes is likely to win that game. And while Denver is 21-9 all-time against the Bengals, and Cincy hasn’t won at Mile High/Invesco Field since 1975 (!!), the wild horses were also forced to name Brock Osweiler as quarterback. The Brock Lobster turned in one of his few good performances against the Bengals back in 2015, natch (and the guy he replaces, Trevor Sieman, also saved his best for our heroes in stripes), but he’s certainly a beatable passer.
Now let’s not blind ourselves to reality—the Bengals have dropped like a stone in the efficiency rankings (down to 23rd overall) after back-to-back poor performances. They will have to upgrade their level of play, especially on defense, to win any of these road games. But the matchups aren’t unfavorable, and if the team plays with the urgency borne from the knowledge that the season is on line, two out of three isn’t farfetched.
If the Bengals can steal those two road games, they would be 5-5 with a half-dozen games left. All are against the North—three from the AFC, three from the NFC.
Continue aboard the Hypothetical Express, shall we? Let’s stipulate that they will beat Cleveland and lose to Pittsburgh, because always. Now 6-6, the Bengals face December tangles with three consecutive NFC North foes—Chicago, at Minnesota, and Detroit. Those games are a lifetime away, by NFL standards, so speculating on the relative strengths and weaknesses of those teams is folly. Safe to say it’s not unfeasible to think the Bengals can win the two home games and be 8-7 going into the season finale with the hated Ravens.
Baltimore caught an immense break—their road game at Lambeau Field in two weeks will be with Aaron Rodgers on the shelf for the Packers. It’s entirely possible that the Ravens could make the playoffs ahead of the Bengals entirely due to the fact that Rodgers was available to single-handedly beat Cincy but was injured when the Ravens came to town. Baltimore also has games with Cleveland and Indianapolis left. Assuming all three of those games are wins, the remainder of Baltimore’s schedule is worth exploring for places they can fall. This Sunday’s encounter at Tennessee is crucial for Bengals fans to keep an eye on, especially if Cincy manages to beat the Jags at the same time. Ideally, the Titans use up so much effort in besting the Ravens that they become easy pickings the following Sunday when the Bengals come to town.
Baltimore also has Houston (hopefully Deshaun Watson remains electric) and Detroit (hopefully they can score from inside the ten, which they couldn’t do against Pittsburgh), both at home, plus the return game with the Steelers at Heinz Field. A 4-3 record in those seven games is hardly a stretch.
That would leave both Baltimore and Cincinnati at 8-7, with a clash in the season finale—on New Year’s Eve in Balmer—with a wild-card berth on the line a distinct possibility. That’s because the other contenders for the spot are either in disarray (Miami, Oakland, Denver) or a team Cincy has beaten head-to-head (Buffalo, Tennessee and/or Jacksonville in this scenario). If that comes to pass, we will all surely be ruing that long-ago opener at PBS, when the Ken Zampese-coached offense was stuck in molasses against the Ravens.
But we aren’t here to dwell on the negative, remember? If this scenario plays out, it would harken back to 2012, when the 3-5 Bengals rebounded to go 7-1 in the back half of the season, attaining a playoff spot with a victory over Baltimore in the season finale, and 2014, when a season about to go off the skids was salvaged by sweeping a three-game road trip (thanks NFL!). Both of those teams lost in road playoff games, of course, but it was better than missing out, right?
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.