The Pittsburgh Steelers’ next game against the Cincinnati Bengals is more important than you might think. If both the Steelers and the Cleveland Browns lose one more game prior to their matchup in the season finale, assuming that the Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens tonight, then the Steelers need the division win over the Bengals to lock in a critical tiebreaker.
Say the Steelers beat the Bengals, but lose to the Indianapolis Colts in week 16. If the Browns enter week 17 with a 12-4 record, with a victory over the Ravens tonight, and then beat the Steelers, they will still lose via tiebreaker because Pittsburgh will have a 5-1 division record, versus Cleveland’s 4-2 record, splitting their games with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
On the other hand, if the Steelers lose to the Bengals but beat the Colts, and the rest of the scenario plays out as above, then the Browns win the AFC North. They will have split their season series, and would both have a 4-2 division record. Then the next tiebreaker is winning percentage in common games. And the Browns would win that tiebreaker because they beat the Colts, according to ESPN’s playoff simulator.
This scenario rests on a number of assumptions, of course, and that starts with the Browns beating the Ravens tonight, which is no guarantee. Baltimore just ended a three-game skid that included a loss to the Steelers, though a loss that included the absence of many starters.
Since then, they have gotten all of their key players back from the Reserve/Covid-19 List, and look to be back on track. They can do Pittsburgh a big favor by beating the Browns tonight, pushing them to 9-4 and giving them a key divisional loss that would make it impossible for Cleveland to win the AFC North while having the same record as the Steelers, as they would have, at best, a 3-3 division record, while the Steelers already have four division wins.
In other words, the next two AFC North games are very important. A loss tonight by the Browns means that they have to finish with a better record than the Steelers, which would require that Pittsburgh loses its last three games. Failing that, a Steelers win over the Bengals accomplishes the same thing by securing at worst a 5-1 division record.
Essentially, the Browns need to win tonight unless they want to put the Steelers in a scenario in which they need to win just one of their final three games—any one of them—to lock up the division. Even with the way Pittsburgh has been playing lately, it’s hard to imagine that they end the regular season on a five-game losing streak.