We knew deep down the day the schedule came out back in April, but now it's official. No matter what happens Monday night against Denver at Paul Brown Stadium (8:30-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 5) the Bengals play for the AFC North tittle in Pittsburgh next Sunday.
And what we also knew would happen is the Bengals would be asked to win it in prime time and the NFL made that official when it announced plans Sunday night to flex the 1 p.m. game at Heinz Field to 8:30 p.m. on NBC to cap off the league's regular season. The last time the Bengals were flexed into prime time was for the 2009 season finale on the road against the Jets.
The 10-5 Steelers are already in the playoffs after they beat Kansas City and the 9-4-1 Bengals can join them with a win over Denver. The 10-5 Ravens can't win the division because no matter what happens Sunday, either the Bengals will have a better overall record or the Steelers will have a better record in the division.
Just one win secures the Bengals' fourth straight playoff berth. A win in Pittsburgh means the Bengals' second straight division title. The division title gives them a home Wild Card Game against, possibly, Pittsburgh, in what would be the '05 rematch.
By Sunday night, four of the six AFC playoff teams were decided: the East champion Patriots at 12-3, the West champ Broncos at 11-3, the South champ Colts at 10-5 and the Steelers at 10-5. New England clinched a first-round bye with Sunday's 17-16 victory over the Jets and would get home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if the Bengals beat Denver. Here's why Peyton Manning figures to play in Cincy. The Broncos clinch a first-round bye with a win against the Bengals.
The pesky Ravens could still be a spoiler for the Bengals if Baltimore wins at home against Cleveland Sunday. So could San Diego if they win at Kansas City. They are the only teams that can leapfrog the Bengals at 10-6 if they lose their final two games and finish 9-6-1. Two Bengals losses and wins by both Baltimore and San Diego would be the only combo that eliminates the Bengals from the postseason.
Last season's game at Heinz was also on Sunday Night Football and the Bengals lost, 30-20. The Bengals' last prime-time win came against the Steelers in last season's PBS opener on Monday night, 20-10, as they bid to stop a four-game losing streak on the national airwaves.
The Pittsburgh game marks the fourth prime-time game this season for the Bengals, the first time
they've been on four times in one year since 2007. It's also believed to be the first time since Oct. 22-28, 1990 they've been in back-to-back prime-time games. They beat the Browns in Cleveland on a Monday night and then lost six days later to the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday night.