The importance of what only a week ago was regarded as a routine game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings has grown exponentially for the Cincinnati Bengals.
After a 30-20 loss Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals (9-5) are clinging to a one-game lead over the Ravens (8-6) in the AFC North. They could lose their grip on the division with a defeat to the Vikings combined with a Ravens win over the New England Patriots on Sunday.
The Bengals could also clinch a playoff berth with a win Sunday combined with a loss or tie by either the Ravens or Miami Dolphins (8-6).
If the Bengals, Ravens and Dolphins all finished 10-6, the Bengals wouldn't even qualify for the playoffs because of head-to-head tiebreaker advantages Miami and the Ravens hold. Under that scenario, the Ravens would finish as division champions and the Dolphins would earn the AFC's second wild-card spot.
The Bengals could conceivably finish the regular season with the AFC's second seed or out of the playoffs altogether.
"We have a lot on the line," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said during a news conference Tuesday. "We've got to go play and win football games. We didn't win one, so we've got to win the next two. If we take care of that and take care of ourselves, that's all we have to worry about."
One reason for encouragement is the Bengals' perfect record at Paul Brown Stadium this season. Cincinnati is undefeated there in six games this year, with two home games remaining this regular season.
"It's big," Lewis said. "I always prefer that we're at home on the last part of the schedule. We'll play a good [Vikings] football team that has not had the season they hoped to have, but they've got a lot of talented guys, and they're going to come in and try to beat our brains in. So we've got to go play. We've got to get after it and play.
"There's a lot in front of us. There's a lot we can accomplish these last two weeks. We want to be playing our best. This is the time of year you need to be playing your best for you to get to where you want to go and where this team wants to go. Good to have the home-field advantage and show what this team is made of."
The Bengals have outscored opponents by an average of 33-17 at home this season. They last went undefeated at home during the 1988-89 season, when they went to Super Bowl XXIII and lost to the San Francisco 49ers. Already this year, the Bengals have defeated the division-leading New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts at home.
"We just need to go out there and do our job," Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. "We won't win the division until we do."
Browns' defense disappointing
In blunt terms, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton acknowledged Thursday his defense's shortcomings the past three games.
The Browns have lost five consecutive games heading into Sunday's game against the New York Jets. Their last win was Nov. 3, over the Ravens.
In the fourth quarter of the past three games, the Browns have squandered fourth-quarter leads, including twice in the last minute.
"We have failed the last three weeks,'' Horton told Cleveland reporters. "You can not play well for three quarters and then, come crunch time, tighten up. We talk about being the backbone of the team, well, you can't do that. You don't do that. It's very disappointing.
"I think as the games go on, there's more pressure to perform well and to not repeat a pattern that has happened in the past. So is there a psychological-pressure effect? I think there is."
End of the line for Keisel?
Gritty veteran defensive end Brett Keisel is preparing for the potential end of his lengthy tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Keisel, 35, has played all of his dozen NFL seasons in Pittsburgh. He's battling plantar fasciitis and has been limited for the past five games.
Keisel, who's in the final year of his contract, is aware that the next two games might be his last in a Steelers uniform.
"That's very possible," Keisel told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That's the nature of the business we're in. Everyone's getting younger. Whatever happens, I'm grateful for my time that I've been here. I'm grateful for the success we've had on this team. … But I want us to go out and finish this thing strong, win these last two games and go out on a positive note.
"I bleed black and gold — everyone knows that. I'm a Yinzer. I love this city. I plan on raising my family here. It's one of those things that it'll be a tough decision to be made when it's there."
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