Cincinnati's Playoff Hunt: Why the Number Two Seed Matters

The Bengals are squarely in the playoff discussion, but can they be Super Bowl contenders?

The NFL’s playoff picture is starting to develop, and as the numbers pile up and the standings shake out, there are plenty of great battles to keep an eye on over the final three weeks.

Many people will be watching the race for the NFC North and South, as both divisions are hotly contested with less than a month to go. And the AFC’s most-watched battle will be for the final wild card spot, as a gaggle of mediocre teams look to get hot at the right time and ride momentum through to the playoffs.

There’s one battle that may go unnoticed, but is of utmost importance for a playoff contender with high hopes to make a run to the Super Bowl.

The Cincinnati Bengals sit at 9-4, two games ahead of division rivals Baltimore. They’re going to coast to a first-place finish in the AFC North as a result, but they can’t let off the gas pedal as a result.

The Bengals trail the New England Patriots by a game in the race for the second first-round bye in the AFC, and with a win over the Pats in hand, the Bengals simply need to match New England’s record to take home the two seed and a home game in the divisional round.

So just how important is getting a home playoff game in the divisional round, avoiding a tough road trip to New England or Denver in the second round?

Let's see what the numbers say.

The Cincinnati Offense is Inconsistent at Best

The friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium don’t mean very much to the Bengals’ offense, which shows no obvious signs of being better at home compared to on the road.

Using numberFire’s Net Expected Points data, which you can read more about by heading to the glossary, the Bengals don’t have any obvious offensive trends when it comes to playing in Cincinnati or another city. Net Expected Points track the number of expected points players and teams gain and lose based on their actions during a game. For the Bengals, their middle-of-the-road offense (ranked 15th in team NEP) has posted good games both at home and on the road, while also posting poor performances in Ohio and abroad.

In fact, when adjusted for strength of schedule, the per-play NEP for the Cincinnati offense is .01 on the road, and .00 at home. Despite the ups and downs of the season, the Bengal offense is excruciatingly average.

But offense isn’t why the Bengals matter. Offense for the Bengals is like the salad at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. It’s not the reason you showed up, but you might pretend to like it for a few minutes before moving on to the good stuff.

For the Bengals, it's all about defense.

The Cincinnati Defense Needs to Be at Home

Unlike the offense, which seems to roll dice or draw straws to determine whether or not it should be good or bad on a given week, there is a clear correlation between the Bengals defense being at home and performing better.

In fact, up until Week 14, the Bengals posted a negative Adjusted Defensive NEP every week they played at home. Negative NEP is good for defenses, because it means the defense is taking away expected points from the offense.

With that in mind, here is a chart of average NEP numbers per game for the Bengals, broken down into home and road contests. DNEP is overall NEP for the defense, while DPNEP is passing defense and DRNEP is rushing defense. This chart's data is adjusted, so it takes into account strength of schedule.

Location Adj. DNEP Adj. DPNEP Adj. DRNEP
Home -7.64 -6.4 -2.14
Road 2.26 3.54 -0.65

A defense producing -7.64 NEP per game would lead the NFL in that metric by a decent margin, while a 2.26 Adjusted DNEP average would be squarely in the middle of the league. If you don't understand why the Bengals need a home game with those numbers in mind, I'm not sure watching sports is a hobby you should consider making a big part of your life.

And considering that the Bengals posted a -8.70 Adj. DNEP against the Patriots in their first meeting in southern Ohio, they'll prefer to recreate that performance in the playoffs in their home stadium, rather than trying to take down Tom Brady in Foxboro with a defense that doesn't excel on the road.

Definitely keep watching the other playoff battles that are heating up over the next three weeks, but don't forget this crucial showdown in the AFC. Because if the Bengals get a home playoff game in the second round, they'll have a legitimate shot to get to the AFC Championship, meaning they're a Denver Broncos' upset away from hosting the title game and being prohibitive favorites to go to the Super Bowl.