Last week after the Cincinnati Bengals lost to the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football, I wrote how the door to the AFC North championship was left open, ever so slightly. Many criticized such a sentiment, saying it was highly unlikely the 8-1 Bengals would stumble enough for the 6-4 Pittsburgh Steelers to catch them in the division race. After the Bengals' second consecutive loss, this time to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday Night Football, the door isn't just slightly ajar anymore, it has been pushed open.
The Bengals' prime time struggles continue, but within the AFC North their lead has dwindled to just two games, and the Bengals will play the Steelers in Cincinnati in just a few short weeks. So, what needs to happen for the Steelers to not just chase down the Bengals in the division, but possibly take the lead? Well, a lot needs to take place, to be honest.
First, the Steelers need to play near flawless football. Losing more than one game, which can't be the Cincinnati game, in their final 6 contests could be a devastating blow, but the equation gets more complex too. Not only do the Steelers need to be nearly perfect in their remaining schedule, but they need the Bengals to, well, continue to be the Bengals of the past two weeks.
The Steelers road to the postseason has softened, but is far from a guarantee. Their remaining games are at the Seattle Seahawks, vs. the Indianapolis Colts, at the Bengals, vs. the Denver Broncos and at the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Not an easy stretch of games, regardless of Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning being question marks for their respective teams moving forward.
The Bengals' road isn't quite as daunting. Their schedule persists of a home game vs. the St. Louis Rams, at the Browns, vs. the Steelers, at the San Francisco 49ers, at the Broncos and vs. the Ravens.
Some will compare the two schedules and simply say the Bengals aren't going to lose enough games for the Steelers to catch them, and that certainly is a possibility. The Steelers' poor division and conference record doesn't bode well for their chances of a tie breaker going their way, which means they need to at least have a one game lead on the Bengals to claim back-to-back division titles.
If the Steelers and Bengals are in the same position when they play head-to-head in Week 14, and Pittsburgh is able to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati, it would make their lead one, but despite the door being opened further after Cincinnati's most recent loss, the Steelers most likely path into the postseason is through the Wild Card and not winning the division. Not that it is impossible, but a lot needs to take place for such a feat to be accomplished.
Crazier things have happened, and with six weeks left in the 2015 regular season the Steelers could certainly make things interesting down the stretch.