Every little bit helps.
The depleted Browns almost pulled off a Nick Mullens miracle in the first game of Monday night's double-header, but Daniel Carlson's walk-off field goal gave the Raiders the 16-14 win in Cleveland and kept the 8-6 Bengals in first place in the AFC North with the tiebreaker over 8-6 Baltimore.
That currently makes the Bengals the fourth seed as the AFC North champs, a spot the 7-7 Browns could have had if they held on. But the Browns, who host the Bengals in the Jan. 9 regular-season finale, saw their playoff hopes dip to 21 percent from last place as the Bengals saw their incline to 48 percent, according to The New York Times playoff calculator.
The chase only percolates this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium when the Bengals and Ravens get to decide some things themselves as Cincinnati enjoys its first NFL playoff run of the 2020s.
"I've been a Bengals fan forever and the last few years have been especially dark," said Moeller High School's Sam Hubbard, one of the bookends of a resurgent Bengals defense. "Never been in a position to play for a chance to go to the playoffs, never had a winning season and to be in this position, this is what it's supposed to be like. This is the standard that we have. We talked about it for a long time and to be finally here is a great feeling. Now, we just got to finish the job."
Head coach Zac Taylor, hired by the Bengals in 2019 after helping the Rams to the Super Bowl as Sean McVay's quarterbacks coach, can sense the moment for him and his players after the first two seasons they won just six games and one on the road. Now it is eight and five, respectively, in 2021 alone.
"We've got a lot of guys that, at whatever level, have played for a lot of championships, and Sam's been a part of that at Ohio State," Taylor said. "A lot of guys played in the College Football Playoff, and we've got guys from other teams that certainly have played in the playoffs.
"This feels very similar to the end of the season my times in LA, how the team felt and what the sense was and the urgency there. Just because we as Bengals haven't been there the last two or three years, I think the sense in the locker room is that stuff is behind us and this team is ready to get going and keep fighting to give ourselves a chance here.
Over in Baltimore, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who had some memorable matchups with the Marvin Lewis Bengals while they went to five straight playoffs from 2011-2015, sounded some familiar themes Monday even though they're in the unfamiliar position of trying to atone for October's 41-17 loss to the Bengals in Baltimore.
(With a bow to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.)
"We're onto Cincinnati right now," Harbaugh told Ravens media. "It's going to be a huge game for us. AFC North. This game is going to go a long way in terms of determining who wins the division. I have a lot of respect for the Bengals, their coaching staff, the players, the season they've had and really everything about that team. So, we're going to have to be at our best on the road [in a] tough environment."
He gave no clue on the health of quarterback Lamar Jackson. He's missed basically the last two games with an ankle injury and while backup Tyler Huntley has played inspired, they've lost two tight ones and that's why Baltimore is in eighth place in the AFC race, one spot out of the playoffs.
The Times says if the Bengals beat the Ravens, lose to the Chiefs at PBS next week and beat the Browns in Cleveland to finish 5-1 in the division, they have a 99 percent chance to make it. And, in that scenario If the Steelers don't win out that would give the Bengals the division title with a sweep of the Ravens and a better record than the Browns.
INJURY UPDATE: Taylor expects running back Joe Mixon (ankle) to be back for the game, but limited early in the week. Same with right guard Hakeem Adeniji (ankle).
But middle linebacker Logan Wilson (shoulder) is out for the third straight game. Joe Bachie, who replaced him in the starting lineup, tore his ACL on the same play he made a hit that drove Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from the game and joins linebackers Jordan Evans and Akeem Davis-Gaither with season-ending injuries.
So now Markus Bailey, the lone healthy one from the 2020 draft of prized backers, is expected to make his first NFL start Sunday. He played well and both he and Germaine Pratt split their first NFL sacks on Double A gap blitz.
After those two, Taylor is looking at Clay Johnston, expected to get off the COVID list to play his fifth game with the Bengals after getting claimed on waivers, as well as practice squadders Keandre Jones and Austin Calitro after they were promoted for their second straight game in Denver.
IN PRAISE OF PRATT: With his career-high 15 tackles Sunday, Pratt continues to have a massive response to Wilson's injury.
"Germaine has been the model of consistency for us. His name may not be talked about as much, but, man, he's running the show right now," Taylor said. "He's always trying to get the ball out. You see Germaine so many times on the sidelines and when somebody else is making the tackle he's trying to knock that ball out and get the turnovers. At times this year that's paid off for us and it's going to pay off for us again. I've been really pleased with Germaine and what he's meant to this team and how he's quietly gone about his business."
LOU EXPECTS WRINKLE: Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo made a name for himself back in October when his game plan on shutting down Lamar Jackson (controlled rushes on the edge, blitzing on third down) became sort of a template. It was the first time the Bengals had ever beaten him in six games when they held him to less than 50 percent passing while letting him rush for 88 harmless yards.
Anarumo is expecting Jackson and a wrinkle.
"I think the players know there is not a whole lot of guesswork here. We know Baltimore. They know us," Anarumo said. "While there will be a lot of wrinkles in the game from them and from us from a schematic standpoint, at the end of the day it comes to do all the things we know they are going to do and how they are going to do it and how we defend that."
So, he'll show something different, but with the same goals in mind. Corral Jackson and make sure No. 5 (wide receiver Hollywood Brown) and No. 89 (tight end Mark Andrews) are accounted.
"It starts with controlling the run game. Both the running backs and Lamar," Anarumo said. "Being able to apply pressure on them. That formula is never going to change. This is a run-built offense first. We have to start with that, hit them with that and when we do force them to pass know where 5 and 89 are on every play and do a good job of keeping Lamar in the pocket."
View some additional snapshots from the Cincinnati Bengals 15-10 victory over the Denver Broncos.