CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have clinched a playoff berth and the AFC North title, they have accomplished all that they can this regular season, right?
"There's still stuff we could possibly achieve if we could win and things can still happen our way," offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said.
With one game left on the schedule, he's right. A win this weekend over the Baltimore Ravens could still give the current No. 3-seeded Bengals a shot at the AFC's No. 2 playoff slot. It also could help them them play a psychological game of sorts with the Ravens. In the event the playoff picture comes together in a way that would allow Baltimore entry into the postseason and forces it to return to Cincinnati next week for the first round of the playoffs, one of the Bengals' typically physical home performances this weekend could prove quite timely.
"If it was my choice, I don't want Baltimore to make it [to the playoffs]," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said.
One way to keep that from happening? Win Sunday. (Even though a Baltimore loss, coupled with losses from San Diego, Miami and Pittsburgh on Sunday still would end up giving the Ravens a postseason berth. The odds of that happening, though, are quite low.)
It is for the various reasons outlined above that the Bengals believe they have to take this weekend's finale seriously. That's why you shouldn't expect to see Jones, Whitworth or any other starters substituted for unless the game has turned into a blowout by the end of the fourth quarter. (The odds of that happening are actually quite high. Across their past four home games, the Bengals have averaged 43.5 points while holding opponents to an average of 17.8.)
"We're going to do everything we can to win the football game with our guys and go at it that way," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We've got to continue to push forward on offense, defense and special teams -- in all three phases -- and play better. We know we're going to play a good football team that has a lot to play for, as we do, as well."
Pressed on whether that was an indication the Bengals' plan was to play 60 minutes with their starting group, Lewis nodded and said "full-go."
That stands in stark contrast to last season's finale when, with both the Bengals and Ravens having already locked up playoff berths, Lewis and Ravens coach John Harbaugh pulled their starters fairly early. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw for just 78 yards and a touchdown on only 19 dropbacks.
As for this season, a Ravens tie or win coupled with a combination of losses or ties by the Dolphins or Chargers also would put Baltimore in the playoffs as the AFC's No. 6 seed. If the New England Patriots win Sunday, thereby retaining their current No. 2 seeding, the Bengals, as the No. 3 seed, would host Baltimore in next weekend's wild-card round.
Dizzy yet? Don't worry, you're not the only one. Suggested playoff scenarios can do that this time of year. That's why the Bengals continue to contend they "control what [they] can control." Once they start worrying about those what-if scenarios, they feel like they play mind games on themselves and stop focusing on the task at hand: just winning.
"If we win the football game, that's all we can control and we keep moving on," Lewis said. "We've been in that mode for a while now and that's all we can keep doing. I keep trying to say it, and I know that it sounds simplistic, but it literally is that."
Whether they end up getting a first-round bye with a Patriots loss or not, the Bengals believe that a strong effort Sunday can not only help them close out the regular season with an 8-0 home record, but it would help get them into the playoffs with momentum and confidence on their side.
"You always want to go into the playoffs hot," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "You never want to be a team that's on the downfall going into the playoffs. You want to be on the rise. If we handle business this week, we'll be one of those tough teams on the rise.
"We're starting to click on all cylinders, man, and that's what we want to see here in January, February, this time of year."