CINCINNATI - Mark this down: Patriots at Texans on Sunday Night Football Dec. 13. That's how the Bengals are going to win the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Under three scenarios that lead to the Bengals winning home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, that game is the key to the most promising one.
Bengals fans should look on the bright side of the Broncos' win over the Patriots last Monday night. Although it made it harder for the Bengals to beat the Broncos for the No. 2 seed, with both teams 9-2 coming into Sunday, it put the Bengals back in the race for the No. 1 seed, one game behind the 10-1 Patriots.
And the Patriots are banged up and suddenly look beatable. Leave it to the Bengals' new nemeses, the Texans, to help.
Under the NFL tiebreakers, here's the most promising way for the Bengals to win the No. 1 seed:
Cincinnati wins out AND New England loses once to an AFC opponent (@Houston or TENNESSEE or @NY Jets or @Miami): WHY: CIN and NE would finish 14-2, and DEN's best finish would be 13-3. First applicable tiebreaker is conference record. CIN finishes 11-1, NE 10-2.
The Patriots - minus Gronk and three of their top four receivers - play a 4:30 home game Sunday against the pitiful Eagles (4-7, lost three straight), then go to Houston – the place where Bengals' playoff runs go to die.
Only this time, Bengals fans will want to root for Houston.
The Texans probably have the best shot at beating the Patriots, though they might have been looking ahead when they lost @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 in Denver on Dec. 28.
Easier said than done? Sure. But that's what's going to prove that this Bengals' team is really different than the last four that went to the playoffs and lost the first game. This year, the playoffs start Dec. 28 for the Bengals (if not next week when the Bengals host the Steelers).
While that's the best-case scenario for Cincinnati picking up the No. 1 seed, it's not the only scenario.
SCENARIO NO. 2: It suddenly seems possible for the Patriots, with their injuries piling up, to lose two games down the stretch (I'm looking at @Jets now). Same for the Broncos, with their uncertain QB situation. Denver has two games with SD, plus OAKLAND, @Pittsburgh and the Bengals. (I'm looking at @Steelers).
If those things happen, and the Bengals beat the Broncos, the Bengals could even afford to lose once down the stretch - perhaps @SF or against the Steelers @PBS – and still win the top seed. Losing to the 49ers wouldn't hurt them in the conference-record tiebreaker.
SCENARIO NO. 3: This involves the "strength of victory" tiebreaker. Bear with me and follow along.
Strength of victory is the combined winning percentages of the opponents that a team has beaten. It's the tiebreaker ahead of strength of schedule.
The Bengals could get the No. 1 seed without the Patriots losing an AFC game thanks to SOV. Here's how:
Going into Sunday's games, Denver led the AFC in strength of victory (.515), followed by Kansas City (.500), Indianapolis (.485) and Houston (.455).
New England (.445) is fifth and Cincinnati is sixth (.414). (So much for the quality of the Patriots' and Bengals' opponents. The Patriots' 10 wins have come against teams with a losing record of 49-61. In their nine wins, the Bengals beat teams that are 41-58.)
Consider what happens if the Patriots lose to the NFC Eagles on Sunday and win the rest of their games, and the Bengals win out. New England and Cincinnati would tie at 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 five opponents will do down the stretch, but most of those teams are already in surrender mode. The Bengals' last five are 24-31 and the Patriots' last five are 22-33.
But here's the kicker: If the Bengals win out and the Patriots lose to the Eagles, the Bengals would collect SOV points from five wins down the stretch and the Patriots from at most four, possibly giving the Bengals the tiebreaker edge. (Note that word "possibly").
So a Bengals-Patriots tiebreaker could even come down to which AFC division champ beat the worst teams. Or the best of the worst.
Of course, all of that is contingent on the Bengals beating the Broncos. If Denver wins the Mile High showdown, all bets are off. The Broncos get tiebreaker advantage over the Bengals AND the Patriots on the basis of their head-to-head wins.
If Bengals fans want to set their expectations lower (no one would blame them) and hope for the No. 2 seed, the Bengals probably still need to beat Denver. If they don't, the only way Cincinnati gets a higher seed than Denver is if Cincinnati has more wins, and the only way it can get a higher seed than New England is if New England loses at least twice.
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 6-5.
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 sure are.
After the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Bengals were a wild card and lost at Houston. Last season, they were a wild card and lost at Indianapolis.
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.