How the Cincinnati Bengals Clinch the No. 1 Seed in the AFC in Week 18

When the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday, it suddenly opened a door to an outcome that seemed impossible on its face. Could the Bengals, the newly-minted champions of the AFC North, go one step further and capture the top overall seed in the AFC Playoffs, earning a bye week and home-field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs?

The odds of the Bengals finishing in the top spot were always going to be long heading into Week 18, though not impossible. First, they would need to take care of their own business and beat the Cleveland Browns to finish 11-6. But they would need help along the way, a lot of help.

And as the week progressed, the odds got longer and longer, with running back Joe Mixon placed on the Covid-19/reserve list and quarterback Joe Burrow ruled out for an extra week of rest.

But the lack of key personnel does not change the math. Here is what needs to happen to land the Bengals in the top overall seed in the AFC:

The Bengals will know their chances for the top seed before they ever take the field Sunday

The Bengals will try to clinch the AFC top seed without Joe Burrow Sunday
Joe Burrow | Justin Casterline/Getty Images

In order for the Bengals to even have a chance of taking over the top seed in the AFC, the Chiefs, sitting a game ahead of the Bengals at 11-5 even after the loss last Sunday, would have to lose again on Saturday to the Broncos in Denver.

Although the Chiefs no longer control their own destiny in the race for top seed, ceding the tiebreaker advantage to the Tennessee Titans based on Kansas City’s loss to Tennessee earlier in the season, the Chiefs do have the incentive to force the Titans to win on Sunday in order to clinch the top seed.

So the odds are already pointing away from the Bengals even having a chance at the top spot when they take the field in Cleveland on Sunday. But should the Broncos pull the unlikely upset, the wheels would start spinning for an interesting Sunday afternoon for the Bengals.

A Chiefs loss is just the first of many dominoes that need to fall in the Bengals’ favor

The Chiefs falling to 11-6 is just the first step in a five-step process that ends with Cincinnati on top in the AFC. The most obvious next outcome is the Bengals defeating the Browns to go to 11-6 and tie the Chiefs. Then it’s up to three other teams to produce a specific result that threads the needle for the Bengals.

The Titans, who are also 11-5, would have to lose to the Texans for the second time this season. Getting one Houston victory over Tennessee is probably all anyone can reasonably expect, but if it happened once, it can always happen again.

Then it’s up to the members of the AFC East to unlock the last barrier to the top seed. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots are both 10-6 and tied for the division lead. But for the Bengals’ purposes, they need the Bills to win the division, as the Bengals only own a tiebreaker advantage over Buffalo. If the Patriots win the East, they block the Bengals from the top seed, even if Kansas City and Tennessee have already lost.

If the Bills, Patriots, and Bengals all win and finish 11-6, because the Bills own the tiebreaker over New England, the Patriots’ tiebreaker advantage over Cincinnati becomes moot, because the Bills would win the AFC East in this scenario and a Wild Card team can’t be seeded higher than a division winner like the Bengals.

Think of it as paying it forward. Remember in 2018, when the Bills needed the Bengals to upset the Baltimore Ravens in the season’s final game, and Andy Dalton delivered a last-minute miracle? Now it’s Buffalo’s chance to return the favor.

Even without Burrow and Mixon, a revenge narrative might be enough to carry Cincinnati

It was two months ago that the Browns handed the Bengals a shocking loss at home, forcing Burrow into one of his worst games of the season in a 41-16 rout in Cincinnati. That loss is undoubtedly still on the minds of Bengals players, even as they prepare to play this game without Burrow and Mixon.

Brandon Allen will start at quarterback for the Bengals, but the Browns have their own injury problems, with Baker Mayfield already ruled out and Nick Chubb a candidate to miss with an injury.

So even with the backups running the show, the Bengals still have every opportunity to hold up their end of the bargain this weekend, then see where the rest of the chips fall this weekend.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Related: NFL Week 18 AFC Playoff Picture: What to Watch For This Weekend