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Road To Playoffs Runs Through…Cincinnati?

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If the NFL playoffs were to begin today, the top seed in the AFC would not be the New England Patriots. Nor would it be the New York Jets. It for damn sure wouldn’t be the Indianapolis Colts, who should all donate their game checks to charity because they surely aren’t doing anything to earn them. The number one seed in the AFC wouldn’t even go to our mortal enemy, the Baltimore Ravens.

The first overall seed in the AFC would be…   The Cincinnati Bengals?

The Bengals have managed to get enough players out on parole in time to cobble together the top team, ranking-wise, in the AFC. They even hold an edge over the Ratbirds by virtue of their AFC best 5-1 conference record. Despite starting a rookie quarterback and ranking 22nd in total offense, they’re out to their second best start in twenty years. Of course, it helps that they currently have the fourth ranked defense in football.

The fly in the ointment is that Cincy hasn’t really played anybody yet. The same soft schedule which has allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to pile up largely uninspiring victories has benefited the Bengals as well. The only team of note they’ve beaten are the Buffalo Bills, who are looking increasingly like one month wonders. Then again, the only team with a winning record the Steelers have beaten are the overrated Pats.

A day of reckoning is coming for both teams. Over the next month, Cincy will face the Steelers twice and Baltimore once. The Steelers aren’t going to catch Baltimore for the AFC North title, not unless the deal Joe Flacco made with the devil expired at midnight on Sunday. So what the Black and Gold have left to shoot for is a Wild Card slot. And you know the Bengals are shooting for that, too, what with target practice being one of the team’s favorite hobbies.

I don’t want to throw Total Steelers into hyperbole overdrive but this Sunday’s game against Cincy is pretty much a must-win. If the playoffs began today, both Wild Cards would come out of the AFC North. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee that being how things shake out in the end. The Bills, Jets and Pats are all tied atop the AFC East at 5-3 and I have to think one of those teams will win the division and one will be a Wild Card. Which leaves the Steelers and Bengals to battle over the remaining berth.

There are all kinds of tiebreakers and scenarios at play, which I won’t bother getting into since there’s no point in frying my brain prematurely. What I will point out is the Steelers are already a game behind the Bengals with a really tough game against the 49ers remaining on the horizon. It is not too far-fetched to imagine a scenario where the teams end up with identical records at the end of the year. If that is the case, having a season sweep over the Bengals would be the cleanest and simplest method for ensuring a trip to the playoffs.

If they split the season series, well, all is not lost but then the row becomes a lot longer to hoe. And unlike Cincy, the Steelers aren’t used to manual labor in bright orange jumpsuits. Cincy has a pretty soft schedule outside of the two against the Steelers and two against Baltimore. If we split our series, then we lose control of our destiny and have to resort to desperate measures such as hoping Baltimore will help us out.

And I’m sure that’s a scenario NOBODY wants to be faced with.