Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers clinched their first division title in four years, and it took them all the way down to the final game. like this week’s upcoming match, that game was played against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers were able to put the division to bed on their home field against their toughest division rival in a season that came down to the wire, but the Bengals have the chance to take care of the deed early, because with a win over Pittsburgh in Cincinnati on Sunday, they can lock up the division title.
Not that it wasn’t already all but a given that the Bengals would win the division at this point. Cincinnati would have to lose its remaining four games, or lose three out of four with the one victory coming against the 49ers, and the Steelers would have to win the final four, in order for anybody but the Bengals to claim the AFC North, as the Ravens and Browns are long out of the race.
But it’s certainly a bigger blow when you give up the race against the team with which you’re competing, which is exactly what the Bengals managed to do last year, in spite of the fact that they had every opportunity to take the division if not for some late-season stumbles and Pittsburgh’s 4-0 December record.
The Steelers do not want to return the favor, not simply to deny Cincinnati the pleasure, but also because they simply cannot afford to give any games away as they compete to stay alive in the Wildcard race.
At 7-5, which is exactly where they were at this time last year, the team is currently penciled in as the seventh seed in the AFC, tied in record with the fifth and sixth seed Chiefs and Jets, but currently losing tiebreakers to both.
The Wildcard race is a story that will likely play out for the next four weeks, however, as up to five teams jockey for position down the stretch to claim one of the two available spots. Despite winning the AFC North, after all, the Steelers fell to the Ravens as a Wildcard team last postseason in the first round.
The Bengals are at the moment 10-2 and are in position to capture a first round bye, and so have every motivation beyond simply taking care of the division on Sunday. The Steelers, meanwhile, trail Cincinnati by three games with their 7-5 record.
Should Pittsburgh lose, it goes without saying that the race is over. The best the Steelers would be able to finish is 10-6, while the worst the Bengals would be able to finish is 11-5. Open and shut. But even if the Steelers win, a repeat at the division title is improbable at best.
Assuming a victory, Pittsburgh would be at 8-5 and the Bengals at 10-3, two games behind. Assuming the Steelers finish 11-5, the only game that the Bengals can win without locking up the division would be their next game against the 49ers.
If they beat the 49ers but lose to the Broncos and Ravens in the final two weeks, the Steelers would claim the strength of victory tiebreaker. But don’t get your hopes up. Just hope that on Sunday, the Bengals’ division title claim is delayed for at least two more weeks.