CINCINNATI – By midnight, the Bengals could control their destiny in the battle for the top seed in the AFC, or the Patriots or Broncos could be back in the driver's seat with the Bengals in danger of missing out on a first-round bye.
In the best-case scenario, Cincinnati would move into the undisputed lead for best overall record in the AFC and for the best conference record by beating the rival Steelers.
In the worst-case - losing - Cincinnati would fall out of the top spot in both conference races and the Patriots would be assured of a tiebreaker advantage over the Bengals based on record against common opponents.
On the plus side for the Bengals, the NFL Sunday Night game between the Patriots and Texans in Houston could have a double whammy on New England in the race with Cincinnati for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
With four games left, it looks like the 10-2 Bengals need help to win a tiebreaker advantage over the 10-2 Patriots - and the 6-6 Texans (along with the 7-5 Jets) appear to have the best chance of beating the Patriots down the stretch. If New England wins out, it looks like Brady & Co. can hold several tiebreaker advantages over Cincinnati, including "strength of victory."
> Bengals win, Patriots lose, Broncos win or lose against Oakland at home
As long as the Bengals can take care of their own business and defeat the 7-5 Steelers, they win the AFC North title. A Patriots' loss would not only give Cincinnati a one-game lead over New England in the AFC playoff standings (11-2 vs. 10-3), it would guarantee the Bengals would win the first tiebreaker with New England by winning their final two AFC games. The Bengals would be 9-1 in the AFC with their last three games @SF (not an AFC game), @Denver and against BALTIMORE at PBS. In that case:
> Cincinnati would be 11-1 in the AFC and NE could do no better than 10-2 with three AFC games to go (TENNESSEE, @Jets, @Dolphins).
> The Bengals would have a one-loss edge over New England in the second tiebreaker - record vs. common opponents (Houston, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Denver). The Bengals would be 3-1 with a Dec. 28 game at Denver and the Patriots would be 3-2.
In contrast, the Bengals' tiebreaker scenario with the 11-2 or 10-3 Broncos is simple: Whoever wins the Mile High showdown on Dec. 28 gets the tiebreaker advantage no matter what else happens. Denver already holds the advantage over New England on the basis of its 30-24 win on Nov. 29.
> Bengals lose, Patriots win, Broncos win
On the gloomy side for the Bengals, a loss to the Steelers and a Patriots' win in Houston would hurt on two levels:
> Cincinnati would drop out of the three-way tie for AFC best record (New England and Denver would be 11-2, Cincinnati 10-3) and lose the lead for best conference record (New England would be 8-1, Cincinnati 8-2, and Denver 7-2).
> New England would be guaranteed of a better record vs. common opponents (New England would be 4-1 and Cincinnati would be 2-2 with Denver to go).
How Strength of Victory Figures into the Tiebreaker Equation
SOV is the combined winning percentages of the opponents that a team has beaten. It's the tiebreaker ahead of strength of schedule.
Going into Sunday's games, Denver is fifth in the AFC in strength of victory (.515), the Patriots are sixth (.458) and the Bengals are eighth (.392). So much for the quality of the Bengals' opponents. In their 10 wins, the Bengals have beaten teams with a combined record of 47-73. In the Patriots' 10 wins, their beaten opponents are 55-65.
Consider what happens if both the Bengals and Patriots win out:
> New England and Cincinnati would finish 14-2, and they would tie in the first applicable tiebreaker - conference record (11-1).
The second applicable tiebreaker is record vs. common opponents. The Patriots and Bengals would tie again (4-1).
> The next applicable tiebreaker is strength of victory. It's too far out to predict how their last four opponents will do down the stretch, and both teams face two weak opponents and two stronger ones.
The Bengals and Patriots will earn more SOV points for beating stronger teams, but to an extent, they're at the mercy of the schedule.
So a Bengals-Patriots tiebreaker could even come down to which of them beat the worst teams. Or the best of the worst.
Tiebreakers at a glance with possible scenarios and outcomes:
> The Bengals can clinch the No. 1 seed by winning their last four games - and that means beating the Broncos in Denver Dec. 28 – as long as New England loses or ties one of its last four: @Houston (6-6), vs. TENNESSEE (3-9), @NY Jets (7-5), @Miami (5-7) WHY? Better record.
> If the Bengals lose in San Francisco (4-8) on Dec. 21 but still tie the Patriots with a better record than the Broncos, the Bengals win the No. 1 seed. WHY? Better conference record.
> If there's a three-way tie with the Bengals beating Denver, the Broncos would fall to the No. 3 seed because of worst conference record. Whether the Bengals and Patriots would finish 1-2 or 2-1 would be decided by tiebreakers, in order: conference record, best percentage vs. common opponents, and strength of victory.
> If there's a three-way tie with Denver beating the Bengals, the Broncos would win the No. 1 seed based on head-to-head wins over the Bengals and Patriots. Who gets the No. 2 seed – Cincinnati or New England - would be decided by tiebreakers, in the same order as above.