The Cincinnati Bengals will have the ability to take on the current top seed in the AFC, the Buffalo Bills, in their Week 17 matchup. A win wouldn’t secure them the top seed, but it would give them the tiebreaker over both the Bills and the Chiefs, who are their primary competitors for the spot.
Even if they don’t win the top seed, it might be fair to think of them as the favorite to play in the Super Bowl, repeating their 2021 appearance. With a weak NFC, that could mean that they have better odds of winning the Super Bowl this year than they did entering the playoffs last year.
The Cincinnati Bengals Have a Path to the First Seed
The number one seed is much more important in recent years than years past, with only one first-round bye in the playoffs for each conference’s one seed — in contrast to most previous years, where the second seed would also get a first-round bye.
Teams with the first seed also benefit from home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, giving them an additional advantage. A team that might win 55 percent of all their games against playoff-quality teams on a neutral field only has a 9.1 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.
If that team sees their chances increase to 60 percent on home field, their chances increase to 11.0 percent with home games in the first two rounds and 11.9 percent through all three rounds before the Super Bowl. With the bye, that increases to 19.8 percent.
In a field of 14, a one-in-five chance is pretty incredible. Seeing chances double with the first-round bye is significant and enough of a reason to doggedly pursue it.
After the Bills game, the Bengals have a final game against the Ravens. Winning that on top of the Bills game would put them in a prime position to secure the one seed, but would require that the Chiefs lose one of their upcoming games against the Broncos or Raiders, which seems unlikely.
The Bengals Have Been Excellent in the Second Half of the Season
In either case, the Bengals might be the most dangerous team of the three heading into the final stretch of the season. Since Week 9, the Bengals have led all AFC teams in net EPA per play. They’ve seen improvements both offensively and defensively as the season has progressed and entered a rhythm, particularly on offense.
Joe Burrow generated 0.139 expected points added per play over the course of the full season but really turned it on in the second half. In his first eight weeks, his EPA per play was 0.129. That’s very good and among the best quarterbacks over that span of time, but it really jumped in the second half of the season, leaping to 0.151 EPA per play.
Only one quarterback besides Burrow remained in the top five of EPA per play for both halves of the season: Patrick Mahomes. And though Mahomes is a great quarterback, the Bengals are supported by a better defense and might be able to do more damage in the playoffs.
While those that watched the Bengals salt away their big lead against the Patriots might disagree, the biggest issue with that game had little to do with repeatable elements of play or the quality of the Bengals and more to do with fluke plays in big moments, like the Ja’Marr Chase fumble on 3rd-and-3 with three minutes remaining or the Jakobi Meyers deflected touchdown.
And that’s nothing to say of the Patriots’ fumbles taken away by intentional grounding rulings or an odd Eli Apple holding penalty near the end of the game that expanded the Patriots’ drive.
Nevertheless, the Bengals overcame those circumstances to pull out the win and demonstrated why they have the ability to take any team in the AFC to task. Not only do they have a resilient passing game that can weather seeing one of their primary receivers taken away, but they can also threaten with multiple styles of play to attack weaknesses in an opponent’s back seven.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals Offense Have All the Answers
They’re known for their explosive plays, and that’s their ideal path to winning — contested catches deep downfield — but they can win in the short or intermediate game as well. Burrow ranks fifth in yards per attempt among all passers in throws that travel between 10 and 20 yards in the air downfield, and his receivers rank fourth in yards after completion on those catches.
The Bengals have primarily done this against zone coverage and have done an excellent job taking down the two-high safety looks that have become popular across the NFL. Burrow ranks third in the NFL in EPA per dropback against two-high looks, which he sees more often because teams are so concerned with how effective Chase and Tee Higgins are deep downfield.
His numbers against man coverage don’t look as good (he’s still in the top half of the league), but the sample is remarkably low because teams do not want to test their corners against Chase or Higgins, who can easily win in 50-50 situations. In fact, Burrow has only seen 70 dropbacks in the last eight weeks facing man coverage play compared to 235 dropbacks facing zone coverage.
In this case, it’s easy to trust the book on Higgins and Chase rather than the low-sample statistics. After all, Burrow ranks fifth in expected points added per dropback against man coverage over the past two full seasons.
Burrow has also been able to control pressure packages. After seeing disrupted pockets throughout the first half of the season, the Bengals and Burrow have changed their approach to reducing pressure rates while preserving big plays.
Some of it comes from splitting tackle La’el Collins (who’s likely out for the season) out wider, and some of it comes from more efficient pocket management from Burrow. And the offense has adjusted to give Burrow some shorter options to defer to when the blitz comes. That’s why Burrow ranks seventh in the NFL against the blitz.
Given that the biggest weakness of the offense has been Zac Taylor’s relatively small playbook and narrow range of options against blitzes, this kind of development has been a welcome change.
Cincinnati’s Defense Has Been Incredible
Defensively, the Bengals have been fantastic as well. They’ve been getting excellent performances up front from nose tackle D.J. Reader, linebacker Germaine Pratt, and, perhaps most impactfully, edge defender Trey Hendrickson.
Hendrickson ranks sixth in the NFL among edge defenders in pressure rate, just behind Josh Uche, Micah Parsons, Nick Bosa, Brandon Graham, and Za’Darius Smith. He ranks just ahead of Myles Garrett and Matthew Judon.
Having Reader and Pratt there to defend the run allows Hendrickson to focus on rushing the passer, and it has resulted in a complete defensive performance up front. That’s why Cincinnati ranks tenth in EPA allowed per play.
On the back end, premier safety Jessie Bates III has helped the Bengals limit the impact of deep passes. Because offenses feel the need to play catch-up against Cincinnati, the Bengals rank fourth in the percentage of passing plays they see thrown deep. Despite that, they have the eighth-best defense in cumulative expected points allowed on deep throws.
Their defense is built more on the ability to stop explosive plays than to generate turnovers — despite the wild ending to their Patriots game last week — and shows more signs of sustainability as a result. In fact, their turnover differential is about at league average, telling us that their excellent stretch of play isn’t statistically boosted by low-frequency, high-impact events.
The Bengals Are Sustainably Good
That sustainability runs throughout the whole team. Though their offense is known for generating big downfield plays, what keeps them going from drive to drive — and one reason they’re more consistent than most offenses that rely on explosives — is their ability to produce first downs.
Drive Success Rate (DSR) measures how often a team generates first downs given their opportunities to create first downs. A drive that ends in a field goal but produced three first downs would have a success rate of 0.75 for producing three first downs in four opportunities. Offensively, they rank fourth in DSR, and defensively, they rank eighth.
Their net DSR ranks first in the NFL, meaning they can get first downs and stop first downs. DSR is a more consistent measure than points, as it’s relatively field-position neutral and independent from big plays or fluky turnovers.
The Bengals had one primary issue at the beginning of the season — their pass protection. They still haven’t solved it, but they have mitigated it, and Burrow has done an excellent job getting rid of the ball before pressure arrives. In the second half of the season, Burrow been one of the NFL’s best at preventing pressure from turning into a sack, allowing just 14.3 percent of pressures to take him down, fifth-best in the NFL.
The Bengals are rolling, and they could be the team we see representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.