A victory at home in Sunday’s regular season finale, and the Bengals are in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. It’s quite an accomplishment for a team that was expected to struggle mightily in 2011.
For the Bengals, the playoffs effectively begin today. They control their own fate. Win and they’re in.
Of course, victory is not assured by any stretch. The Bengals will face the 11-4 Ravens who have plenty to play for themselves. The Ravens need to win to lock up the AFC North Division crown and secure a first round bye. They can’t count on the Browns beating Pittsburgh as an alternative, although the Steelers will likely rest QB Ben Roethlisberger. Beating the Bengals is the only sure-fire way they can assure themselves of a week off and a home playoff game. If the Bengals are going to keep playing, they’ll need to take Baltimore’s best shot.
Here are my keys to beating the Ravens on Sunday:
- Playoff Atmosphere: The Bengals need a sold out and raucous PBS to greet the Ravens. It’s a playoff game for the Bengals, so it should be reflected as such in the stands. Despite incredibly lackluster attendance this year, Monday morning’s reports are that the ticket office has been swamped with purchases. The Bengals have helped with buy one, get one offers for season ticket holders as well.
- Turnovers: Turnovers sunk the Bengals in the first Baltimore game, and nearly killed them on Saturday. Cedric Benson must eliminate the fumbles (5 in the last 2 games), and Andy Dalton must be careful with his passes. On the other side, the Bengal secondary got 3 interceptions on Saturday and have been doing better at forcing fumbles. An extra possession or two would go miles towards helping the Bengals win the game.
- Win the Big Play Battle: Torrid Torrey Smith torched the Bengals in the first match-up. Cincinnati’s secondary must do a better job containing him in the rematch. Luckily, Anquan Boldin will be out for Baltimore (he played in the last game), and the Bengals will have A.J. Green this time (he sat out the first game). Another big game for Jerome Simpson, who had 152 yards in the week 11 loss, including a 47-yarder, would be nice.
Of course, the Bengals can still secure a playoff berth with a loss, but it’s a complicated formula requiring lots of help. They’ll need the Jets to lose to Miami (falling to 8-8) and for either the Raiders to fall to San Diego or Denver to lose to Kansas City to end at 8-8. They don’t need both the Raiders and Broncos to lose, just one of them. That scenario makes Cincinnati alone at 9-7, or tied there with only Tennessee for the final wildcard, with whom they hold the tiebreaking edge.
The Bengals should know the outcome of the Jets and Titans by the time they kick-off at 4:15 (the kick has been moved back for TV) but the Raiders and Broncos also play late games.
Perhaps the best outcomes for Sunday would be a Cincinnati win (of course) along with a Denver loss and Raiders victory. That would secure the AFC West for Carson Palmer’s Raiders, getting the Bengals in and opening up the possibility of a better draft choice out of the Palmer trade.
In that scenario, the Bengals would get a favorable match-up in a rematch with the Texans in Houston. Another crack at T.J. Yates and the Texans should be something the Bengals would like for the first round.
But it’s too early to look at Houston. Right now, the Ravens should be the focus for the Bengals and the city of Cincinnati.