When is a division title not a division title?
The NFL powers-that-be threw that riddle at the Bengals Friday when the owners voted to potentially send the AFC North champion and 11-4 Bengals on the road to Baltimore for next week's Wild Card playoff game if they lose Sunday's season finale at Paycor Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the 10-6 Ravens and then lose a coin flip for home field.
Despite a better winning percentage no matter the outcome, the only way the Bengals can secure a Paycor playoff game next week is with a win over a Baltimore team that doesn't have quarterback Lamar Jackson (knee) for the fifth straight game and maybe not backup Tyler Huntley (throwing shoulder), limited all week and called questionable by head coach John Harbaugh.
And while the Bengals bristle, it fits the persona of quarterback Joe Burrow's 2021-2022 chip-on-the-shoulder Bengals. Coming off a four-win season in 2020, they've tortured the pundits, doomed the naysayers and convinced the skeptics in becoming the first teams to win back-to-back division titles in the franchise's 55 seasons with a powerful combined record of 21-11
Now they can add the league to the chip as they gun for 12-4 to tie the best Bengals record of all-time set by the 1981, 1988 and 2015 teams.
"We've been doubted, we've been put down over these last two years, but we know the guys we have in this locker room and the coaches upstairs," said slot cornerback Mike Hilton. "We know we can do anything. We're a confident group, we believe in each other and we've got to go out there and just keep proving it."
The unprecedented wrinkle dovetailed with the great news that Bills safety Damar Hamlin is talking to his teammates when breathing tubes were removed less than four days after he was revived on the Paycor turf following a cardiac arrest nine minutes into the Bengals game against the Bills.
"It's a weight off our shoulders," Hilton said. "The first day on Tuesday, you could feel the mood was just down, guys were just kind of hanging their heads. But as we got updates on him throughout the week you could feel the energy coming back. Guys know this Sunday is going to be one of the hardest games we've played in a long time because of what happened Monday. But guys have to be able to block it out and do their job."
The Ravens can't win the AFC North now that the Bills-Bengals game has been cancelled. But they can get a home playoff game if they beat the Bengals and then win a coin flip.
It goes against the NFL rulebook that gives division championships and seedings, and thus home field advantage, to teams with the best winning percentage in case of cancelled games. But NFL competition chairman Rich McKay said Friday the rules were "adjusted," for the best interest of all 32 teams as Bengals ownership and head coach Zac Taylor scratched their heads.
So their players in the locker room on Friday were left a little empty when it came to observing what may be the most significant division championship in franchise history.
"It doesn't feel real," said wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who in reality has played his first two NFL seasons on the Bengals' first ever back-to-back division championships.
Veteran center Ted Karras, who knows what a division title feels like because he has four of those hats in New England from what the NFL hands out after a clinching, says it will feel like it only with a win Sunday.
"Until we lock up the home playoff game," Karras said. "If they're going to name us the division, then we get the game. We need to settle it by winning."
Taylor made his displeasure known to the media Friday after Bengals executive vice president and NFL competition committee member Katie Blackburn aired her disagreements with NFL ownership in a Thursday letter and before Friday's virtual vote.
"We just want the rules to be followed and when a game is canceled that you just turn to winning percentage to clarify everything so we don't have to make up the rules," Taylor said after Friday's practice. "There are several instances this season where the club is fined or people in our building are fined and we are being told to follow the rules. It's black and white in the rulebook. So, now, when we point out the rules and you are told we are going to change that, I don't want to hear about fair and equitable when that is the case. So what this team will do is all we can control is going into a game this weekend and doing our best to win. We are going to channel our energy into that."
The Bengals would win the second seed if they beat Baltimore and the Bills lose to the visiting Patriots. They can't win the top seed, but if the Bills lose and the Chiefs lose at Denver, a Buffalo or Cincinnati vs Kansas City championship game is at a neutral site.
"Opportunities lost for us that we had a chance to control that now we don't. Fine. But it seems like there are positives for a lot of teams and just negatives for us," said Taylor, who went into Monday a game out of the top seed race. "We have the opportunity to play for a coin flip that can only negatively impact us. We don't have the opportunity to play for a coin flip that positively impact us. Let's just follow the rules and we accept that. We just have to turn our focus to getting ready for Baltimore and then doing everything we can to control what we can control at that point."
Now the Bengals are left with sports' No. 1 rule, as spoken by middle linebacker Logan Wilson.
"We just want to take care of business," Wilson said. "That's the mindset. We're not worried about the coin flip. At the end of the day it's still in our control what we do. We control what we can. That's our mindset."
This team has been running on why-not-us-they-have-to-play-us juice for two years now, so the NFL ruling isn't going to provide some kind of a spark to avoid some kind of post-Monday hangover. As Karras says, the improving condition of Hamlin should lift them out of any potential fog.
"I think it's more of a spark that he's up and talking and face timing the Bills. I think that's very special," Karras said.
McKay pointed to COVID and how the NFL manipulated the schedule and upset teams. But no games were cancelled during COVID.
"If the (Ravens) beat Cincinnati, they would have beaten them twice and the reason they don't have a chance to win the division is because of that (cancelled) game," McKay said. "You could say that assumes Cincinnati would have lost, but there's nothing to assume that. What you're really saying is you're not going to deprive Baltimore of that opportunity. One way to create a little more equitable, not perfect but a little more equitable, is a coin flip for home-field advantage."
It's a tough sell. But there are also guys like special teams captain Mike Thomas.
"I'm wise enough to know these are unprecedented times. There are no perfect answers," Thomas said. "At this point it's hard to complain when one of our brothers in our membership had to fight for his life. As a result, whatever happens, happens. Let's go get a win. That's the mindset. Let's go win Sunday so we have hats and T-shirts in the locker room and know that we earned it."
Karras and his four titles know there's only one way to celebrate a division crown.
"Have to win it," Karras said. "I will indeed wear the hat. I would take my picture in the hat. I'm going to do the whole thing. But it's not real yet."