TAMPA, Fla. -- As they woke up Monday morning, the Cincinnati Bengals had good reason to smile.
At long last, they have a little breathing room. That once immensely tight race with the rest of the AFC North now shows a little distance between the Bengals and the rest of the pack.
That's because the Bengals were the only one of the four teams to win Sunday, narrowly escaping with a 14-13 road victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They probably should not have won the game, but because of a series of bizarre events, and some observant assistant coaches and players, they did.
In the locker room after the game some players learned through their smartphones and social media that every other AFC North team had lost, allowing them to widen their division.
OK, The Bengals' one-and-a-half-game division lead isn't exactly a "runaway," but the division race has been tight all season, and over the final four regular-season games the Bengals now have a chance to break away from the pack and set themselves up for one of the AFC's highest playoff seeds.
On Sunday, the gauntlet begins at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. After losing to the Saints this weekend, the Steelers will be desperate for a win to close the gap on the Bengals.
Following that game, the Bengals go back on the road for a Week 15 contest at Cleveland. Then Denver comes to Cincinnati for a Monday night game that could help determine conference seeding. Currently, the Broncos hold the AFC's No. 2 seed with a 9-3 record. At 8-3-1, the Bengals are one half game behind them, occupying the No. 3 seed.
The top two seeds have an automatic bye the first weekend of the playoffs, and home-field advantage.
With a win next week against the Steelers, a Patriots loss at San Diego and a Broncos loss to the Bills, the Bengals would have the AFC's top seed. With a loss, Cincinnati could drop to the No. 4 seed. This is why each win the next few weeks is so crucial.
After the prime time Broncos game, the Bengals travel to Pittsburgh for the season finale. There is a good chance a division title, a wild-card spot and playoff seeding could be at stake in that game.
If the Bengals do better than split their final four regular-season games, they might be able to apply the term "runaway" to their growing stranglehold on the division.
Start getting your popcorn ready, folks. This could be a dramatic December in the Queen City.