CINCINNATI - Something called "strength of victory" could decide the AFC North title, and if so, the Steelers stand to win out over the Bengals.
While the Bengals have made the NFL playoffs for the fifth straight year, there are still plenty of unanswered questions: Will they be division champs? The No. 1 seed? No. 2 seed? Wild card?
All of those are still in play.
And here's one you might not have heard: What is strength of victory?
The Bengals (11-3) can hit the daily double by winning their next game in Denver (10-4) on Monday Night Football on Dec. 28. They would clinch the AFC North title and the No. 2 seed - which carries a first-round bye in the playoffs and a home game in the second round.
Bottom line: The Bengals will win the AFC North if they win one of their last two games OR the Steelers (9-5) lose or tie.
Most likely outcome: The Steelers have an easier road despite going on the road to play Baltimore (4-10) and Cleveland (3-11). But after Denver, the Bengals host Baltimore in the regular-season finale on Jan. 3 and they should win that game no matter who is quarterbacking.
Worst-case scenario: The Bengals don't win the AFC North and have to settle for a wild card. If the Bengals and Steelers tie at 11-5, it looks like the Steelers would win the division on strength of victory, the fifth tiebreaker between two teams in the same division. That's because the first four tiebreakers - head-to-head, record in common games, record in the division, record in the conference - would come out even.
Strength of victory is the combined winning percentage of the teams you have beaten. It's supposed to reflect greater success against better competition. With two weeks to go, the Steelers' SOV is .492 based on their defeated opponents' combined record of 62-64. The Bengals' SOV is .409 based on a combined record of 63-91. The difference in the number of games is the result of the Bengals having won 11 games and the Steelers nine.
With two games to go, it seems impossible for the Bengals to overcome that gap. A pro-Steelers website, SteelersDepot,com, also concluded that the Steelers would win the strength of victory tiebreaker.
Those numbers will change, obviously, over the last two weeks. The changes may even seem arbitrary, though they are not. For example, assuming the Steelers beat the Ravens Sunday, the Steelers will add the Ravens' 4-11 record to their SOV calculations, and that will actually lower the Steelers' rating.
To consider the best-case scenario for the Bengals, I calculated their SOV with their non-common beaten opponents winning out (Seattle, Kansas City, Buffalo) and the Steelers' non-common beaten opponents losing (Arizona, Indianapolis and Denver vs. San Diego).
I won't swear by my math, but the Steelers' SOV came out on top.
Footnote: The 2010 Packers went 10-6 and qualified for the last wild card by strength of victory. They beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
Best-seeding scenario: The Bengals have a chance to get the No. 1 seed if they beat Denver and win out, but they would need a lot of help. If New England loses out at the Jets and at Miami, the Bengals could finish 13-3, the Patriots 12-4 and the Broncos no better than 11-5. It's not hard to see the Patriots losing at the Jets (9-5) next week, with New York fighting for a wild card. But losing at Miami? Not so much. If the Patriots lose once and tie the Bengals at 13-3, the Patriots would win the tiebreaker based on best record vs. common opponents (NE is 4-1 against Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Houston and Denver and the Bengals would be 3-2).
Next best seeding scenario: As long as the Bengals beat the Broncos, they're guaranteed the No. 2 seed based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. If they lose in Denver, they would fall to No. 3 unless they beat the Ravens on the last weekend and the Broncos lose or tie at home to San Diego. But they can't fall lower than No. 3 as long as they finish 12-4.
Wild card chaos: If they Bengals lose out and finish 11-5, all sorts of things can happen:
> They could lose the AFC North to the Steelers and drop to a wild card and lose the home playoff game;
> They could finish in a two-way tie or three-way tie with the Jets and Chiefs (or Broncos).
In a two-way tie, the Bengals would beat out the Chiefs (head-to-head) and the Jets based on best record against common opponents (Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston and Buffalo). The Bengals would be 5-2 and the Jets 2-3. The Broncos would beat the Bengals (head-to-head).
In a three-way tie with the Chiefs and Jets, the Chiefs would win based on best conference record (KC 10-2 Bengals 8-4, Jets 8-4) and the Bengals would beat out the Jets based on best record against common opponents.
In a three-way tie with the Broncos and Jets, the Bengals and Jets are in based on best conference record and the Broncos are out. (Bengals and Jets 8-4, Broncos 7-5).