The 6-5 Los Angeles Chargers cling to the No. 7 seed as the past five weeks have seen them seesaw between losses and wins (2-3) since entering their bye at 4-2.
Despite stubbing their toe in recent weeks, including Sunday's 28-13 loss in Denver, the Chargers are confident they can right the ship.
Thirteen teams in the AFC have at least five wins. The Chargers' grip on a playoff spot is minimal over Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.
Underscoring the tight postseason race in every division in the AFC, first and second place is separated by two or fewer games (IND 2 games behind TEN in AFC South is the largest gap). It's the first time every division in a conference was within two games through Week 12 or later since Week 15, 2018, per NFL Research.
Coach Brandon Staley said he addressed the playoff setting a couple of weeks ago when the Chagres reached their midway point. The coach said understanding how each week's puzzle fits into the big picture fits is important.
"I think that it's always good to be mindful of that," Staley said, "so that you can have the type of preparation and performance that we expect and not get caught up in things that aren't important.
"We have a lot in front of us, and when I say a lot in front of us, we have Cincinnati in front of us. And it's a big game because they're ahead of us in the AFC."
The Bengals sit at 7-4 (fifth seed) and are not dissimilar from their L.A. counterparts. Each has gone through ups and downs this season. Both have young stud quarterbacks (Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow), both have playmaking weapons (Ja'Marr Chase/Tee Higgins/Keenan Allen/Mike Williams) and dominating running backs (Austin Ekeler/Joe Mixon), and both have difference-making talents on defense (Joey Bosa/Derwin James/Trey Hendrickson/Jessie Bates).
Sunday's game in Cincinnati will tell a lot about each club.
The Chargers sit at 2-3 against teams currently in the playoffs. With an offense that doesn't always get the most out of its strong-armed QB and a defense that has been gashed, particularly on the ground, Staley's team needs a win against a good Bengals team to show it can compete in the hotly contested AFC.
"Hopefully, we're building this thing to be our best at the end," Staley said. "That's our plan. I feel like so much of that is your mindset and that trust and that belief in one another."