CINCINNATI — With two home games all that’s left in the regular season, the Cincinnati Bengals are hoping to hold on to first place in the AFC North.
They would like to do so in front of a sold-out crowd. Neither goal will be easy.
The Bengals (9-5) need to beat the Minnesota Vikings (4-9-1) at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday to move a step closer to clinching the division title. They’ve led the AFC North by at least two games for most of the season, but it’s down to one over the Baltimore Ravens (8-6) with two games left.
“You’re all in at this point,” safety Chris Crocker said. “You’ve really got to win. Just win. Doesn’t matter how it looks, just win.”
With two weeks to go, the Bengals are still in very good position to make the playoffs for an unprecedented third year in a row. But a 30-20 loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday night tightened things.
The Bengals haven’t sold out their game for Sunday. Roughly 3,500 tickets remain, and the league gave the team a one-day extension to avoid having the game blacked out on local television.
Fans packed Paul Brown Stadium for the first six home games, but as the playoffs close in, the Bengals have become a tough sell. The loss at Pittsburgh left a lot of fans with a sense of doom.
“We’ll go back this week and play well and everybody will change their tone, and all of a sudden we’ll be good again,” offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. “That’s kind of how it goes around Cincinnati, for some reason.”
Whitworth has grown accustomed to playing in front of empty seats during his eight-year pro career. The Bengals have gotten better at filling the place the past few years with their run of playoff appearances, but aren’t yet a sure thing at home.
“It has always been interesting at times as far as that stuff goes,” Whitworth said. “All we can do is continue to put a winner on the field and try to prove who we are, and people will come and support us.”
The Bengals are in line to get the No. 3 AFC seed in the playoffs, behind Denver (11-3) and New England (10-4). They beat the Patriots at Paul Brown Stadium, giving them the head-to-head tiebreaker if they finish with the same record.
Cincinnati would clinch a playoff spot with a win on Sunday, coupled with a Miami loss at Buffalo. They would clinch the AFC North title with a win and a Baltimore loss to New England.
If the Bengals and Ravens win on Sunday and the Dolphins win their last two games, it will come down to the final week, with Baltimore playing at Paul Brown Stadium. The winner would get the division title. The loser would be eliminated from playoff contention.
“I think we’re going to win (on Sunday) and I think Baltimore, they have momentum and they’re going to win, too,” Crocker said. “I think that last game is going to mean a lot.”
The Bengals reached the playoffs as a wild-card team the past two seasons, but played poorly and lost at Houston in the first round both times. Getting a home playoff game would be a big step.
But Crocker isn’t looking that far ahead.
“We’ve really got to win (on Sunday) because if we lose this game, it’s going to be really ugly,” he said.