Bengals defensive captain Sam Hubbard calls it a two-game season and The New York Times agrees with him.
The Times no longer has a sports department, but it does have an NFL playoff predictor and it puts the Bengals' postseason chances at 92% if they win their last two games against playoff teams. The final push starts Sunday in 9-6 Kansas City (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and ends at Paycor Stadium against 10-5 Cleveland the following weekend on a day to be announced.
The 8-7 Bengals need to finish tied with the 9-6 Bills, the 8-7 Colts, or the 8-7 Jaguars to win the head-to-head tiebreaker. If they are tied with two of them, the tiebreaker moves to division records and the Bengals are out at 1-5.
The Jags host the two-win Panthers Sunday and finish at the 5-10 Titans. The Colts finish at home against the 7-8 Raiders and the 8-7 Texans. The Bills play the visiting four-win Patriots before ending the season at the 11-4 Dolphins.
"We've probably got to have help. I don't know the math," said center Ted Karras in the bowels of Acrisure Stadium moments after Saturday's game. "We've got two weeks to show what we're all about and try to back door our way in."
Help would be nice. The Bengals got some on Sunday. The Bills won and it would have been nice if the Texans beat Cleveland to move closer to the AFC South title. But the Jags and Colts lost.
With wins over the Bengals, the 8-7 Texans and 8-7 Steelers hold the head-to-head edge. Like the Bengals, the Steelers finish the season against two winning teams. Both on the road, at 8-7 Seattle and 12-3 Baltimore. Houston hosts the five-win Titans before finishing at the 8-7 Colts in a game the Bengals want the Texans to win the AFC South so they can knock off the Colts in the tiebreaker.
"We've got a lot to play for," said cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. "Everything is a must win. A playoff mindset. Win or go home, so to speak."
SECONDS SPLIT IN POST: This is why the dean of the Bengals locker room, safety Mike Thomas, makes the trip even though he's on the practice squad.
Barely had the crowd finished losing its mind on last Saturday's biggest and longest play, an 86-yard touchdown pass on the Steelers' first pass of the game. Thomas, he of 121 NFL games in the previous ten seasons, approached first-year safety Dax Hill, who as the unfortunate post-safety on that play, had been the last line of defense as wide receiver George Pickens ran about a 10-yard slant inside rookie cornerback DJ Turner. Hill came up to make the play and when he slipped and fell out of the angle, Pickens was gone.
Less than a split second. Point five seconds is what Thomas was trying to tell Hill. And reminding him it is a tough ask for safeties in the post everywhere.
"You have to see the receiver. You have to put your foot in the ground and see the receiver. See the angle he's at in .5 seconds. You have to take that correct angle to get him on the ground," Thomas recounted his conversation with Hill. "You lose a few more yards, but you've got to get him on the ground. As a post-safety, that's what we signed up for."
Hill knows. It's all about the angles.
"At the post, that's what you want to do whenever you're breaking on it," Hill said. "You never know where the receiver is going to end up. Just taking a better angle and getting him on the ground. I slipped. Slippery surface, but I can't make excuses."
The entire year has been a learning experience for the ultra-athletic, 4.3 speedy Hill, 2022's first-round pick. Right down to learning the fields, like Saturday's rain-slicked grass in Pittsburgh. Most of his 131 rookie snaps came at nickel cornerback while this year he has piled up a team-high 984 snaps as a starting safety while logging 99 tackles, 11 passes defensed, two interceptions, 1.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. The only other NFL safety with at least that many in each category is Tampa Bay's Antoine Winfield Jr.
But on Saturday the number was 0-5 seconds.
"There are some hard lessons. That game was humbling. If you play long enough in this league, you have those games," Thomas said. "(Hill) is a talented guy. Smart guy. You go back and you fix it. You have the thick skin. Don't take anything personally."
Hill has had the added burden in his first NFL season at safety to have two different safety partners, both newcomers to the Bengals. Veteran Nick Scott started until midseason, when third-rounder Jordan Battle took over, and now Hill and Battle are learning to get in sync.
"Now that I'm out there week in and week out, I want to see improvement. There are going to be highs and lows. It's not going to be perfect. The NFL doesn't work like that," Hill said. "Learning from (Battle) and him learning from me. Just playing off each other. As a tandem, you kind of want to feed off each other. I feel like we've been doing a pretty good job. Certain plays we have to clean up and I feel like we'll learn from that."
Hill also knows the NFL is a game of ebbs and flows. If the Steelers struggle on the first two series in No. 3 quarterback Mason Rudolph's first start of the season, the crowd is turning on the Steelers instead of turning them on. Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton observed after the Pickens play, "You can tell from our sideline, that kind of sucked the energy out and we were never able to rebound."
"You've got to stop them early," Hill said. "It's a momentum type of game. He starts out hot, it's going to be hard to get that momentum back. The crowd gets involved. That's how you know that momentum has shifted."
A game of momentum. And split seconds.
"Something liked point five seconds," Thomas said. "He'll learn from this and he'll be better and the Cincinnati Bengals will be better."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The Bengals are 3-1 against the Chiefs since Jan 2, 2022. They are 2-0 at Paycor Stadium in the regular season and 1-1 in the last two AFC title games at Arrowhead Stadium. They may meet for the fifth time in a year and 363 days without the two guys who have owned the Chiefs.
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