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Bengals try to climb into playoff race

The Cincinnati Bengals are trying to get back into the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. This year, there is much more on the line than usual, with the futures of both head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton hanging in the balance.

Dalton, 30, has three years remaining on his contract but could be cut for a $14 million savings in 2018, followed by a savings of $33.9 million over 2019 and 2010. Meanwhile, Lewis, who has been on a series on short-term contracts, does not have a deal through 2018. In other words, he’s a lame duck without much reason to be kept unless the Bengals show surprising and immediate progress.

Things looked bleak for Cincinnati at 3-6 and heading into Denver. The Broncos are terrible but the Mile High City is a notoriously tough place for road teams to win in. Yet the Bengals walked out with a 20-17 victory and now host the Cleveland Browns, who come into the weekend as the NFL’s worst outfit at 0-10.

The Baltimore Ravens are currently sitting in the sixth and final seed of the AFC playoff picture at 5-5, and they play host to the Houston Texans on Monday night. While the Ravens probably win this week, the Bengals could still gain ground on teams such as the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, who are both double-digit underdogs.

Should the lines hold, Cincinnati would leapfrog the Dolphins and pull into a tie at 5-6 with the Bills. Buffalo lost earlier this year to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, putting Cincinnati one spot closer to an improbable playoff berth.

Moving forward, the Bengals schedule is relatively forgiving. Cincinnati is starting a three-game homestead this weekend that includes the Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears. If the Bengals can pull off a sizable upset over Pittsburgh, they would have a great chance to be 7-6 heading into the final three games of the season. In Week 17, Cincinnati takes on the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, with the winner perhaps in position to go to the postseason.

If Cincinnati plays some January football, there would be a case for both Dalton and Lewis to stay. Some (including this writer) would still believe that it’s time to turn the page on a team that is too talented to tank, but too riddled with holes to make a Super Bowl voyage. Still, the argument would exist, and for conservative owner Mike Brown, that might be all he needs to stay the course.

Cincinnati has a chance to make a run toward the playoffs, but it starts now for a team that is long on talent but short on time.

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