CINCINNATI -- Apparently, being the AFC's No. 1 seed has its advantages.
The No. 1 seed is now in the Super Bowl.
You will recall that way back on Dec. 27, a Sunday the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos were both idle as they awaited their Week 16 "Monday Night Football" game at Sports Authority Field in Denver, a series of results fell perfectly into place for Cincinnati.
Without having even played a down of football that Sunday, the Bengals were two wins from possibly becoming the conference's top seed entering the playoffs.
That Sunday, Pittsburgh lost to Baltimore, allowing Cincinnati to clinch its fourth AFC North title. The Patriots also lost that day to the Jets, clearing the Bengals' path toward the No. 1 seed. All Cincinnati had to do was beat the Broncos and then shut down the Ravens at home to close out the regular season a week later. A Patriots loss at Miami -- which did come to pass -- also would have clinched the top seed.
When backup quarterback AJ McCarron led the Bengals to a 14-3 halftime lead in Denver, it looked like the dominoes would keep falling perfectly.
But then the Bengals' defense faltered in the second half, allowing two touchdowns, including one in which several players missed tackles on a 39-yard run. Later, Cincinnati's offense struggled to get back into the end zone. A.J. Green's hesitation on a post pattern -- one he later characterized as a brief misread of the Broncos' defense -- led to him being inches away from chasing down what would have been a for-sure fourth-quarter TD reception had he run all the way through his route. It might have been the game-winning score.
The game went to overtime, where the Broncos had the first possession, and scored on a 37-yard Brandon McManus field goal. McCarron was in position to lead a comeback drive, but two plays into the series, with the ball at his own 33, McCarron sent Green in motion on the right side of the formation. He was still glancing at his receiver when he called for the snap from center Russell Bodine. The ball shot into McCarron's hands and then skipped out behind him. He chased after it, but Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware was too quick, recovering the fumble to end the game.
The Bengals lost to a team that entered that game on the cusp of possibly missing the postseason altogether. They lost to a team that, with Week 17 help, ultimately became the AFC's top seed. It's the same team that held on at home Sunday to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl 50.
If only McCarron could have handled the shotgun snap like he's caught so many others. If only the offense had been able, for one last drive, to rekindle some of their first-quarter magic and get an end-of-game touchdown.
Had all of that happened, Cincinnati would have later claimed the conference's No. 1 seeding. It would have had the first-round bye it was so desperate to receive for its injured starting quarterback, Andy Dalton. The Bengals still might have had an Andy Dalton-less playoff date with the Steelers in their first game, but maybe the stars would have aligned better in a divisional-round meeting than they did in the wild-card round, which has become their perpetually disastrous for Cincinnati. The Bengals have lost seven straight wild-card games.
Maybe, just maybe, the Bengals would have two more weeks of football left.