DENVER – Thank you, Ravens. And Jets. And Matthew Slater. And Chiefs.
With the AFC North title in hand, thanks to the Ravens' win over the Steelers Sunday, there's no pressure on the Bengals (11-3) to make the playoffs anymore. The pressure is now squarely on the Broncos (10-4). Here's why:
> The Broncos, on a two-game losing streak, haven't clinched a playoff spot yet;
> The Chiefs (10-5 with a nine-game winning streak) own a tiebreaker advantage and could pass the Broncos for the AFC West title;
> Denver could be left out of the playoffs all together if it loses its last two games.
So now the Bengals can play loose at Denver Monday night (8:30 p.m., ESPN) while the Broncos carry a lump in their throats as both teams, playing backup quarterbacks, try to nail down the No. 2 seed and all the gold it brings: Namely, a first-round bye and a home game in the second round.
Here are some possibilities at play:
> Bengals beat or tie Broncos: Bengals (12-3 or 11-3-1) clinch No. 2 seed – no ifs, ands or buts. Broncos (10-5 or 10-4-1) risk losing AFC West to Chiefs (10-5).
> Broncos beat Bengals: Broncos clinch playoff spot and all but wrap up No. 2 seed. Broncos and Bengals would be 11-4 and Broncos would carry head-to-head tiebreaker into the final game. But Bengals could still win No. 2 seed if they beat Ravens (5-10) at PBS and Broncos lose to Chargers (4-11) at Mile High. Chiefs would still be in the AFC West race.
> Worst-case scenario: Bengals lose to Broncos and Ravens: Bengals can't fall lower than No. 3 seed. That would leave them with first-round home game against No. 6 seed (wild-card team with worst record - likely Steelers or Jets).
> Best-case scenario: Bengals beat Patriots for No. 1 seed: Thanks to Matthew Slater and the Jets' overtime win over the Patriots, both the Bengals and the Broncos are still in the running for the No. 1 seed. But the Patriots (12-3) would have to lose or tie at Miami and Bengals would have to win out. That's because the Patriots have a tiebreaker advantage over the Bengals based on best record vs. common opponents (NE is 4-1 against Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Houston and Denver and Bengals would be 3-2 at best).
On the other hand, Broncos have head-to-head tiebreaker over Patriots.
If there's three-way tie at 12-4 (with Bengals beating Broncos), Patriots and Bengals would have the best conference record (9-3) and Broncos (8-4) would drop out of the tiebreaker. Patriots would beat out Bengals on best-record vs. common opponents.
Who's Matthew Slater? The Patriots player who won the overtime coin toss against the Jets but elected to kick. The Jets drove right down the field for the winning TD and Tom Brady never got to touch the ball in OT.
> Chiefs win AFC West: If Denver and Kansas City tie at 11-5, Chiefs win out based on best division record.
> Chiefs win AFC West and tie Bengals at 11-5: Bengals beat Chiefs for the No. 2 seed based on head-to-head-tiebreaker.
> Steelers miss/make playoffs: With both Jets and Chiefs winning Sunday, Steelers (9-6) now need help to make the playoffs. Pittsburgh has two hopes: 1) Bills (7-8) beat visiting Jets (10-5). In that case, Steelers beat out Jets with better record against common opponents; OR 2) Denver loses at home to Bengals and Chargers AND Kansas City wins at home against Oakland (7-8). That way, KC (11-5) wins AFC West and Jets, Steelers, Broncos tie at 10-6. Jets and Steelers get wild cards and Broncos are out based on Jets' best conference record (Jets 8-4, Steelers 7-5, Broncos 6-6) and Steelers' head-to-head over Broncos. Of course, all that depends on Steelers winning in Cleveland (3-12) next week.