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AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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The Saturday prime time AFC Wild Card playoff game features the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, presumably for television to take advantage of the Steelers’ national following. But you’ll excuse these teams if they’d prefer to play on Sunday.

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That would mean one more day for Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton’s right thumb to heal. One more day for Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams’s sprained right ankle to get better.

Williams was described as being “day-to-day” by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin earlier in the week, but was subsequently ruled out on Friday. Dalton had a cast removed from his hand on Monday, but the expectation is that AJ McCarron will start at quarterback.

So whichever team loses this game will be blaming injuries. Ironic, because prior to Dalton’s broken thumb Dec. 13 against the Steelers the Bengals were noted for their ability to stay healthy thanks to their practice schedule, while Tomlin has been lauded for getting the Steelers into the playoffs despite the fact that 18 players are currently on an injured reserve list.

AFC Wild Card: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: CBS

Spread: Steelers -1.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Who is hurt more by injuries?

The answer to this question is the Steelers since they already know that DeAngelo Williams won't play. It’s somewhat déjà vu for Pittsburgh, which entered last year's playoffs with Le’Veon Bell injured. This forced the Steelers to go with Ben Tate, who they claimed off of the waiver wire, as their starting running back.

Tate was unimpressive and the Steelers’ offense was one-dimensional against the Ravens in their wild card matchup. Pittsburgh had not lost to a division rival in the playoffs since 1947. But that changed when the Ravens beat the Steelers 30-17 at home.

That loss also is one of the reasons why the Steelers signed Williams this offseason. Last week, Williams' replacement, Fitzgerald Toussaint, could only muster 24 yards on 12 carries.

AJ McCarron, meanwhile, has not thrown an interception in his three starts and has won two of them, albeit against weak teams (San Francisco and Baltimore).

But when he came on in relief of Dalton against the Steelers in their last meeting, the Alabama product threw an ugly interception to William Gay on a swing pass that was returned for a touchdown. McCarron also slumped at the end of a 20-17 overtime loss to Denver in Week 16, eventually fumbling away Cincinnati’s final possession in a game that would have given the Bengals home-field advantage throughout the playoffs had they won.

McCarron hasn’t thrown more than 200 yards in any of his starts, which speaks of head coach Marvin Lewis playing conservatively (against San Francisco the Bengals ran the ball 36 times against only 21 passes in a 24-14 victory).

Don’t discount McCarron’s game manager skills, however. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown at least one interception in all but two games this season, including three in a 16-10 loss to the Bengals back in Week 8.

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And while Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard may have been unspectacular this season, they did split the workload of the Cincinnati running game, keeping them fresh and healthy. 

Cincinnati also could be without two additional players. Backup defensive tackle Brandon Thompson is out, while tight end Ryan Hewitt, known primarily for his blocking, not only missed the Baltimore game last week he also has yet to return to practice.

2. Can the Steelers’ pass defense stop whomever the Bengals play at quarterback?

Prior to last Sunday it seemed the Pittsburgh secondary could be counted on to allow one long touchdown pass a game. McCarron himself threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green against the Steelers on Dec. 13.

The Steelers have the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, and are at the bottom when it comes to AFC teams. No team with as porous a pass defense has ever won the Super Bowl, though the 1983 Washington Redskins and 1996 and 2011 New England Patriots lost Super Bowls with similar and worse rankings.

But Pittsburgh’s secondary has been improving as cornerback Brandon Boykin gets more playing time, and the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks from defensive backs. The rush often comes from the short side of the field, so the Bengals may be more inclined to run plays in the center or right side of the field to protect their quarterback’s blind side.

3. Coaching

One of the best ways to judge a coach is to see what he does in the playoffs. For the most part the talent is equal, so often strategy wins out.

Bengals-Steelers games tend to be physical, or, if you prefer, dirty. Injuries are commonplace. So the team that wins this game may be the team that is most disciplined; not taking penalties fueled from emotion.

Still, Marvin Lewis has never won a playoff game as a head coach in six previous postseason trips. Mike Tomlin has not won one in five years, and if the Steelers lose it will be the franchise’s longest such drought since The Immaculate Reception.

The losing coach will take plenty of heat. Lewis can’t afford to go 0-7, and whenever the Steelers lose Facebook lights up with memes comparing Tomlin unfavorably to his predecessor, Bill Cowher.

Imagine if Tomlin loses in the playoffs to a former Cowher assistant. 

Final Analysis

At least Pittsburgh knows that DeAngelo Williams won't be available. This isn't new territory for the Steelers, but it's also a situation that hasn't worked out well, as we saw last year (and in 1976) when they are reduced to starting their third-string running backs.

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That said, it is 2015, and every other time Pittsburgh has made the playoffs in a year ending in “5,” the Steelers went to the Super Bowl (1975, 1995, 2005).

Ten years ago the situations were eerily similar. The Steelers were the sixth seed in playoffs, the Bengals third. Ben Roethlisberger was the starting quarterback for Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati had to rely on a backup after Kimo von Oelhoffen knocked Carson Palmer out of the game. But remember the Steelers won't even have their backup running back available for this matchup, and running the ball is critical come playoff time.

Prediction: Bengals 24, Steelers 20

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.