Every two or three minutes, cheers rose from the dozen or so jersey-wearing Bengals fans who were huddled in a corner of the lobby. Bolstered by a New England Patriots loss to Miami earlier in the day, Cincinnati fans were offering well wishes to their team on their way to the buses waiting to take them to Heinz Field.
NFL Playoff Machine
Check current playoff seedings and Week 17 scenarios.
Such send-offs are common on road trips for visiting teams. But because of what all was at stake for the Bengals, there was something a little different about this one. More than at any other time this season, playoff seeding and a playoff berth are on the line.
Earlier this week Cincinnati's primary objective was simple: just win. But thanks to a game-icing interception by Miami's Michael Thomas about an hour before the Bengals' last bus left for Heinz Field, the goals changed.
Suddenly "just win" turned into "beat Pittsburgh, and we're in the playoffs," and "beat Pittsburgh, and Minnesota and Baltimore, and we have a first-round bye."
If the Bengals end up getting past the Steelers on Sunday night, they will end up doing two important things. They will have clinched their third straight playoff berth -- the first time in team history they will have gone to the postseason that many times in a row -- and moved from the current AFC No. 3 playoff seed to No. 2. The top two seeds get the first week of the playoffs off and home-field advantage.
How do they automatically become the No. 2 seed with a win? In order to understand that, you have to go back to Oct. 6. That day, the Bengals beat the Patriots when one of their own defensive backs, cornerback Adam Jones, intercepted Tom Brady in the final seconds of that game. The 13-6 victory was Cincinnati's third of the year, and it helped propel its momentum forward.
It won't be easy for the Bengals to claim a win Sunday. They're playing a Steelers team that has a better offensive than it did in September when the Bengals won 20-10 on a Monday night -- their first win of the season. Pittsburgh also probably wouldn't mind embracing the role of postseason spoiler for the Bengals. After dominating the AFC North for so long, the 5-8 Steelers are in a strange position this year. Entering the game, they were all but formally eliminated from postseason contention. A loss would make that elimination official.
A win at Pittsburgh, and the Bengals will be in the driver's seat.
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET/NBC
Weather: 25 degrees. Some snow showers with winds gusting up to 20 mph during the game.