CINCINNATI -- Special teams could play a big role in the final three games as the Bengals prepare to face three of the more dynamic return men in the NFL in Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson and Baltimore's Jacoby Jones.
Patterson leads the NFL with 33.3 yards per kick return and has two touchdowns, while Jones is fourth (28.7) and has one touchdown and was one Mike Tomlin foot away from another.
Brown ranks 11th in the league in punt returns (10.8). He had a 40-yarder in the first game against Cincinnati in Week 2, and in 2011 he burned the Bengals with a 60-yard return for a touchdown.
But Cincinnati return man Brandon Tate is climbing the ranks as well thanks to a 40-yard kick return and 43-yard punt return last week.
Tate ranks ninth in kick returns (26.0) and 13th in punt returns (9.4).
"We're playing the best returners in the NFL over the next three weeks," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We know how important the things Brandon Tate did last week for us were and ... how important that's been for us all season that we have guys here that are capable of making big plays in returns.
"Our specialists have to be excellent," he added. "We've got to put the ball where we want the ball all of the time. We've got to separate, cover and tackle."
Playoff picture: Denver's 27-20 loss to San Diego on Thursday left the door cracked for the Bengals to sneak in and claim the No. 1 seed for the AFC playoffs.
For that to happen, the Bengals (9-4) would have to win their final three games at Pittsburgh, vs. Minnesota and vs. Baltimore, and the Broncos (11-3), Patriots (10-3) and Chiefs (10-3) each would have to lose at least once.
Denver's remaining games are at Houston (2-11) and at Oakland (4-9).
New England plays at Miami (7-6), at Baltimore (7-6) and vs. Buffalo (4-9).
Kansas City is at Oakland (4-9), vs. Indianapolis (8-5) and at San Diego (8-6).
In a three-way tiebreaker with Denver and New England, the Bengals and Patriots (who both would be 9-3 against AFC foes) would advance and the Broncos (8-4 vs. AFC) would be eliminated based on conference record, and then the Bengals would win the tiebreaker by virtue of their head-to-head win against New England in Week 5.
In a three-way tiebreaker with Kansas City and New England, the same scenario would play out because the Chiefs also would be 8-4 in conference play.
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