Bengals suddenly caught in AFC North race

CINCINNATI -- All of a sudden, thanks to Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker's powerful right leg, we've got a playoff race in the AFC North.

That's not the worst news for the Cincinnati Bengals, but it certainly isn't the best, either.

While the Bengals are still quite grateful at this point to be heavily involved in the NFL's playoff push, they are now a couple of scenarios away from actually watching this promising season come to an abrupt and shocking end with them sitting at home.

Yes, that really can happen, Bengals fans. Seriously.

Even if Cincinnati (9-5) wins this weekend when it hosts Minnesota, it still could miss the playoffs with a loss to Baltimore at home in two weeks. The Bengals and Ravens would both have 10-6 records, with Baltimore claiming the division title tiebreaker because of a season sweep over the Bengals. Cincinnati already lost in overtime at Baltimore, 20-17 on Nov. 10.

Along with that, if the Miami Dolphins win their final two games against the Bills and Jets, they would be 10-6. Like the Ravens, the Dolphins have a tiebreaker over the Bengals, thanks to their win over Cincinnati in South Florida on Halloween. If that tiebreaker were enacted, it would mean Miami would take the sixth and final AFC playoff seed. Cincinnati would effectively be shut out.

See, Bengals? Now do you see why winning at Pittsburgh on Sunday night was important? The 30-20 defeat you took wasn't just an ordinary loss like some of you were wont to say after the game.

"It doesn't matter when you lose them," center Kyle Cook said. "If you lose them all at the beginning of the season, they're going to hurt at the end. Every game you lose is a lost opportunity."

It was actually very easy to agree with Cook when he made this statement in one one-on-one interview inside the Bengals' locker room just after Sunday night loss. It was easy to understand the core of what he was saying: That all losses are bad and you try your hardest not to let any happen at any time of year.

But when you have December games like Monday night's 18-16 Ravens' final-minute win over the Detroit Lions, you begin to realize that for teams as talented and as strong as the Bengals were early in the season, late-season losses really can be painful. A loss in the regular-season finale, and a team that a month ago -- heck, two days ago -- looked like an easy lock to win the AFC North, might not claim the title, after all.

Two more wins, and a Ravens team that two months ago looked like a shell of its defending Super Bowl champion self could actually walk away with the division again.

A division race that appeared over back in October, has grown open.

This is why, for the next two weeks, the Bengals must do everything in their power to turn defensive end Michael Johnson's words into prophecy. Just after Sunday's loss, he told reporters: "We're going to come back and win two in a row at home and go into these playoffs and wreak havoc."

Paul Brown Stadium has been a relative house of horrors for opposing teams all season. There, the Bengals are 6-0 and have completely dismantled their opponents on both sides of the football. Of all the disappointment the Bengals have been handed the past two days, this glimmer of optimism might actually end up being all they need to make Baltimore's Monday night moot.

Now more than ever, the desire to fulfill their preseason goal of going undefeated at home takes on added significance. Two wins in two weeks could very well end up being what stands between them and their third straight postseason bid.