If the Bengals win Sunday against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday at 1:00, they still need some help to make their way into the playoffs.
Either the Jets would have to lose to the Raiders, or the Broncos would have to lose to the 49ers plus the Chiefs would have to beat the Jaguars for Cincinnati to enter the postseason as a wildcard team. But first and foremost, they have to focus on beating the Steelers because another loss eliminates them no matter what the other teams do.
The Bengals, though they lost a chance to clinch a wildcard spot Sunday with the 24-23 loss to the Broncos, are still 6-5 in the AFC. Conference record is the first playoff tiebreaker after head-to-head competition.
The other 8-7 teams -- Kansas City, Jacksonville and Tennessee -- all have worse AFC records than the Bengals. The Jaguars and Titans are 5-6 in the conference and the Chiefs 4-7.
"I guess we need help from the Jets," Bengals defensive end Justin Smith said. "It should never have come down to us needing help to get into the playoffs."
|Bengals WR Chris Henry is tackled by the Broncos' Darrent Williams (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)|
"Whether it is for the playoffs or not, you have to play well every time you step out onto the field," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "You cannot come out tense and tight, and we need to get away from that."
The Steelers lost Sunday to Baltimore and were eliminated at 7-8. Still, Cincinnati-Pittsburgh is the Bengals' most intense rivalry.
If the Bengals were to qualify as the sixth and final seed, they would play at the division winner with the worst record. Right now, South winner Indianapolis and East winner New England are 11-4.
It was another what-if afternoon.
"We didn't play well enough to win," head coach Marvin Lewis said after a snowy afternoon at Invesco Field at Mile High. "I thought we would have stolen it if we'd won it. We need to learn to not implode."
The Bengals committed four turnovers and had just two takeaways, and Broncos rookie quarterback Jay Cutler -- making just his fourth NFL start -- completed 12 passes for 179 yards with two touchdowns. Trailing by just four in the third quarter, the Bengals committed an illegal motion penalty wiped out what would have been a 75-yard touchdown bomb to Chris Henry.
"That took the life out of us," tight end Reggie Kelly said.
An offside penalty prevented the Bengals from recovering an onside kick with 40 seconds remaining, forcing them to kick again. Denver recovered the second time. Receivers dropped several passes.
The run defense, spectacular in limiting Denver to 26 yards on 12 carries in the first half, sprung leaks in the second half. In the second half, the Broncos ran 22 times for 101 yards.
--QB Carson Palmer, though he continues to deny rumors of a serious injury to his throwing shoulder, was uncharacteristically inaccurate with his passes Sunday. And he missed some throws he normally could make with his eyes shut. He was 21 of 40 and threw two interceptions.
--RB Rudi Johnson ran 30 times for 129 yards. It was the first Bengals' loss in Johnson's career when he has 25-plus carries. They are 17-1 when he runs 25 times.
--Johnson's 6-yard touchdown run was his 12th of the season and tied him for second in franchise history with 45 rushing touchdowns. Corey Dillon also had 45 (1997-2003). Pete Johnson had 64 from 1977-1983.
--DT Domata Peko had six total tackles, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
--LT Levi Jones did not start but came in for the third offensive series and did not come out. "But what did it amount to? A losing effort," Jones said after the 24-23 loss Sunday at Denver. Jones had not played since Oct. 15 at Tampa Bay. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery the following week.
--LT Andrew Whitworth, beaten for three sacks Monday night at Indianapolis, was beaten in the first quarter by Denver end Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil forced Palmer to fumble, but left guard Eric Steinbach recovered. Whitworth was not removed from the game because of injury.
--WR Chad Johnson was limited to three receptions for 32 yards, lost a fumble and dropped a pass that killed a first-quarter drive and forced a punt. Bailey, on the other hand, had his NFL leading ninth interception, recovered Johnson's fumble and had six tackles.