Like we posted to the Cincinnati Bengals' ESPN NFL Nation blog Monday afternoon, all of a sudden the Bengals' season comes down to five weeks in December. The playoff push has already started. By this weekend, it will reach a fever pitch.
In the article linked above, cornerback Chris Crocker discusses how December typically is seen as the benchmark for when teams want to set up their final run to the postseason. With a late bye week that just ended over the weekend, his refreshed and refocused team has the perfect opportunity to hone in on the month ahead and breeze through their opponents for the best combination of seeding and home-field playoff advantage, he said.
"Let's just win it out," Crocker said. "It's all about winning in December."
Indeed it is. The more wins the Bengals have and the fewer the other teams around them in the playoff chase have, the better. Although no team, AFC or NFC, has officially locked up a playoff spot, Cincinnati is one team that appears destined for a trip to the postseason simply because it has had such a strong start so far. According to sports projections site NumberFire.com, the Bengals currently have a 93.5 percent chance of reaching the playoffs.
Part of that is because entering this past weekend, it was more the norm in the AFC for teams to be 5-5 or 4-6. So the few teams at 7-4 or better, like the Bengals, had maneuvering room over the rest of the conference.
Whatever leads or tiebreakers the Bengals currently have, though, they know they need more. So while a win this weekend at San Diego will be important, so will one the following week over the Colts, and the weekend after against the Steelers and one more over the Vikings in another week and yet another over the Ravens in the final week of the season. A 5-0 month or even a 4-1 finish could set up a December to remember for the Bengals. It also could set them up with one of the coveted high seeds, leading to a first-round playoff bye and one more chance to rest up and focus up ahead of the remainder of their season.
We kick off Tuesday's Morning Stripes with yet another look at the postseason as the playoff chatter heats up in chilly Cincinnati:
Here's the read on Crocker's belief that a hot December is looming from Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson. Crocker believes the Bengals not only have the talent to finally earn the franchise's first playoff win since a wild-card victory over the Houston Oilers in 1990, but that it has the skill to be one of the top two-seeded teams in the AFC when the playoffs arrive. A bounce here or there and a completely better performance in one game, and Cincinnati could be undefeated right now, Crocker contends. That's enough for him to know just how good this team can be, and helps reaffirm his belief that it can lock up the postseason by notching win after win in the final month of the year.
If the Bengals are going to come away with a string of wins this upcoming month, they'll have to cut down on the turnovers committed by their offense. That was the obvious message from coaches when the Bengals returned from the bye, Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes. In addition to limiting the turnovers, better conversion ratings on third downs and shorter third-down scenarios are going to be part of the focus moving forward, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. Even though the team's defensive staff spent the bye week scouting the offense, and vice versa, Gruden didn't need film study and meeting time to tell him that. He believes it's time for his group to either execute, or spend more time at home this winter than it wants to.
Another key to success for Cincinnati's offense down the stretch rests with its receivers. Specifically, it rests with No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. After a record-setting performance against the New York Jets in late October, Jones has been mostly held in check during the weeks since. Sanu didn't score his first touchdown of the season until the last game against the Browns. In order for the Bengals to see the offense operate at a high level again, both will be needing to play their best games. Fox Sports Ohio's Kevin Goheen writes that they're looking forward to doing just that. We'll have more ourselves on Jones later in the day Tuesday.