CINCINNATI – The Bengals probably weren't expecting an early Christmas present after their 37-3 rout of the Browns Sunday. A few hours later, though, their chances of winning the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the AFC got a huge boost.
Thanks to the lowly Philadelphia Eagles, who stunned the New England Patriots 35-28 in Foxboro, the Bengals are now in a three-way tie with New England and Denver at 10-2 - their best start in 40 years - and sitting pretty with four games to go.
To a Bengals fan's eye, it must look like Cincinnati is in the driver's seat with the Patriots, undefeated two weeks ago, burdened by key injuries and facing away games at Houston and the New York Jets, and the Broncos having to go to Pittsburgh and host the Bengals with a virtually untested QB, though Brock Osweiler has done pretty well (3-1) so far.
Let's consider several tiebreaker scenarios in the battle for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs:
> Put simply, 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 the Bengals and Patriots otherwise tie with a better record than the Broncos, the No. 1 seed could be decided by an obscure tiebreaker – strength of victory. The Patriots hold a big edge on the Bengals at the moment, but that could change back and forth down the stretch. More on that later.
> 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.
> If the Bengals lose to the Broncos and finish in a two-team tie with Denver, the Broncos get the tiebreaker edge. Denver already holds it over New England.
Right now, the Bengals have a better conference record (8-1) than the Patriots (7-1) and the Broncos (6-2), but New England and Denver have four AFC games left - the Broncos play OAKLAND (5-7), @Pittsburgh (7-5), CINCINNATI (10-2), SAN DIEGO (3-9) - and the Bengals have three - STEELERS (7-5), @Denver (10-2), BALTIMORE (4-8).
Here's how strength of victory figures into the equation.
SOV is the combined winning percentages of the opponents that a team has beaten. It's the tiebreaker ahead of strength of schedule.
After 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 43-67.)
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 (in their case, Houston, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Denver). The Patriots and Bengals would tie again (4-1).
> The next applicable tiebreaker is - you guessed it - 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.
Next Sunday's games could tell a lot with the Patriots playing at Houston, the Bengals hosting the Steelers and the Raiders at Denver.
The Texans are just the team to hand the Patriots their third straight loss, though Houston might have been looking ahead when it lost at Buffalo Sunday. Houston (6-6) had won four straight, including a 10-6 win here on Nov. 16, and the streak had tied them with Indianapolis for first place in the AFC South. With their own playoff aspirations revived, and the chance to host a first-round game at stake, JJ Watt & Co. will have plenty of incentive to beat New England.
It will only take that one Patriots' loss in their last four AFC games to get Cincinnati the top seed as long as the Bengals take care of business and do what the Patriots couldn't - beat the Broncos. Easier said than done? Sure. But that's what's going to prove if this Bengals' team is really different than the last four that went to the playoffs and lost the first game.
Of course, all of this is contingent on the Bengals beating the Broncos. If Denver wins the Mile High showdown, all bets are off.
Realistically, nobody else has a chance to sneak into the top three seeds. After New England, Cincinnati and Denver, the best of the rest teams are 7-5.
Barring a total collapse, the Bengals are going to win the AFC North and get at least a No. 3 seed and a home game in the first round - same as after the 2013 season, when they lost to San Diego. But the Bengals are hoping for more than that. Their fans surely are.
Want to take your best guess on the playoff teams and rankings? See how they stack up so far, then refer to the NFL tiebreakers. Be sure to follow this guide: To determine home-field priority among division champs, apply wild-card tiebreakers.