Next three weeks will be pivotal for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- With December just around the calendar bend, the Cincinnati Bengals are preparing for football's version of a postseason pennant chase.

"It's all about winning in December," Bengals cornerback Chris Crocker said.

The 11-year veteran ought to know. He's been to the playoffs with the Bengals three out of the past four seasons. Each time, the result was the same: the Bengals lost their first game.

For that reason, the focus for Crocker's Bengals isn't just on making it back to the postseason. This time, naturally, they want to win and win and win some more.

"This year, it's about winning," Crocker said. "That's the cloud that hangs over top of us. That's that dark cloud that's like, 'Alright, we have the talent to get to the postseason. Now, can we win?'"

Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since 1990.

The next three weeks could help set the stage for that embarrassingly long streak to be snapped. They will be pivotal in telling the story about this year's Bengals.

The higher their seeding, the better chance the Bengals have at enjoying home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Bengals haven't lost at Paul Brown Stadium this season, and it stands to reason that the more games they can host, the better their odds of reaching the Super Bowl.

To that end, if Cincinnati is to go far in the postseason, it will need to take care of business right now.

"Let's just win it out," Crocker said about the final five games of the regular season. "When I talk about the postseason, I don't want to jump too far ahead because these five games are really important. They really set us up for the postseason. That's why I'm like, 'Hey, we win these final five games, we set ourselves up for something good.'"

Certainly each of the games from here on are important. Depending upon what happens in Baltimore on Thursday when the Steelers meet the Ravens, games against the Chargers, Colts and Steelers could have major implications for the Bengals going forward. On the line this weekend at San Diego is a bid at continuing to climb the conference charts and locking up a better-than-No.-4 seed. Also at stake is an opportunity to nearly eliminate the surging Chargers from postseason contention. A loss Sunday would drop San Diego to seven losses.

"We just have to keep winning," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We do that and we'll be in the perfect situation, man."

A win over Indianapolis next weekend would give Cincinnati the coveted tiebreak over their AFC South brethren from a state over. Coupled with the tiebreak the Bengals already have over the New England Patriots, this would put the Bengals in a good position to grab the No. 2 seed, home-field advantage and a first-round playoff bye if the Patriots lose again.

"I'm really, really trying to win out these last five ballgames so that we have a shot to get a first-round bye," Crocker said. "That's really my goal because I see how close we are and I know how much that could help going forward. I really want to win these last five games. That's what I'm thinking about."

If Pittsburgh emerges victorious over Baltimore on Thanksgiving, the stage could be set for a key AFC North showdown in the Steel City three Sundays from now. The Steelers will be playing for a wild-card berth and, assuming they win this week and next week, will be looking to close the current two-game gap the Bengals have over them in the division race.

"Other guys are the same mindset as me," Crocker said. "It's like, let's win out and see where the chips lay. Why can't we win out? I don't see why we can't."

After facing the Chargers, Colts and Steelers, the Bengals have the Vikings and Ravens to close out the year. If Baltimore wins this week against Pittsburgh and rallies the next four weeks, a crucial season finale against Cincinnati could be set up.

"We're in a good position," receiver Marvin Jones said. "One to separate ourselves. We have to control every game and quarter. If we take care of the things we need to, then we can write our own story. We determine what we do in the end. We all know that."