The Pittsburgh Steelers will host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday for a critical regular-season finale between bitter AFC North foes. Following a 7-2-1 start to the season, Pittsburgh (8-6-1) looked to be well on its way to a division title and possibly a top seed in the playoffs. Unfortunately, things would take a dramatic turn for the worse with the Steelers losing four of their last five contests down the stretch, including a heartbreaking 31-28 loss to the Saints last week. As a result, Pittsburgh now finds itself in desperation mode with just one game remaining.
The good news is that the Steelers still have a shot at winning their third straight AFC North title. The bad news is that simply beating the Bengals (6-9) won’t be enough to make that happen. Pittsburgh also needs Cleveland to upset current division leader Baltimore. There’s also a less likely scenario where the Steelers could sneak into a wild-card spot with a win over the Bengals, coupled with a tie between Indianapolis and Tennessee.
As for the snake-bitten Bengals, they are already destined for a last-place finish in the AFC North and head coach Marvin Lewis’ future is once again uncertain. But they would like nothing more than to close out a difficult 2018 season on a high note by playing the role of spoiler against a hated rival. Which is exactly what the Bengals did last year when they eliminated the Ravens from playoff contention in upset fashion in week 17 of the 2017 NFL season. In a strange twist of irony, Cincinnati’s performance (or lack thereof) could once again impact the Ravens’ postseason plans, along with those of the Steelers.
The Steelers have won each of the last seven games in this rivalry and 10 of the last 11, including a hard-fought 28-21 victory in Cincinnati back in Week 6. Pittsburgh also leads the all-time series 63-35.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The return of James Conner?
After missing the last three games with a high ankle sprain, Conner was non-committal about his status for Sunday’s game against the Bengals, stating only “It’s getting better” in reference to his injured ankle. He’s also listed as questionable on the official injury report. However, Conner did practice in full both Wednesday and Thursday, providing more than just a glimpse of hope that he will play in the pivotal regular-season finale.
For obvious reasons, his return could not come at a better time for the Steelers. Despite rookie backup Jalen Samuels’ 142-yard breakout performance in the win over the Patriots, the Steelers have averaged just 87 rushing yards per game with just one touchdown on the ground in Conner’s three-game absence. Pittsburgh also went 1-2 during that stretch.
In terms of Sunday’s matchup, it bodes very well for the second-year running back. Conner ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns, adding four catches for 18 yards, in the 28-21 Week 6 victory over the Bengals. And the Week 17 rematch could prove to be even more fruitful against a beat-up Cincinnati defense that ranks 29th in the NFL against the run (142.6 ypg). Conner’s healthy return would provide a nice boost for the Pittsburgh passing game as well.
2. The Cincinnati offense
Over the course of the season, Cincinnati has lost starting quarterback Andy Dalton, star wide receivers A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert and starting right tackle Jake Fisher to name a few. Outside of San Francisco, it’s safe to say that there isn’t an offense in the NFL that has been more ravaged by injury than that of the snake-bitten Bengals. And now, Cincinnati’s makeshift offense will limp into Pittsburgh in an attempt to fight the good fight.
The good news is that Cincinnati does have one standout player left standing on offense. Despite missing two games this season himself, running back Joe Mixon leads the AFC with 1,063 rushing yards to go along with eight rushing touchdowns. He also has 294 receiving yards and a touchdown on 42 receptions. He will face a solid Steeler run defense on Sunday that ranks sixth in the NFL, yielding just 94.2 rushing yards per game. While Mixon will have his work cut out for him, he provides the Cincinnati offense with its best chance for success. He did manage to find pay dirt in the Week 6 matchup against the Steelers, averaging a healthy 5.82 yards per carry in the process.
As for the passing game, backup quarterback Jeff Driskel has been serviceable, completing an efficient 61 percent of his passes for 908 yards with six touchdowns to just two interceptions. However, those numbers still leave plenty to be desired. And while the Pittsburgh pass defense can be quite generous at times, Driskel could have a tough time on Sunday with only a skeleton corps of receivers at his disposal. Wide receiver John Ross does provide Driskel with a viable red zone target with five touchdown catches over his last seven games.
3. The Pittsburgh passing game vs. the Cincinnati pass defense
The Bengals are very beat up on the defensive side of the football as well. And that certainly won’t help their cause when trying to defend one of the league’s premier passing attacks on Sunday. The Cincinnati pass defense currently ranks 30th in the NFL (275.7 ypg), while the Steelers enter Week 17 second in passing yards per game (315.5). Ben Roethlisberger leads the league with 4,842 passing yards to go along with a career-best 33 TD passes. The downside is that Roethlisberger also leads the way with 15 interceptions.
Aside from turnovers, Pittsburgh’s only concern in this otherwise highly favorable matchup is the health of Antonio Brown. The elite wide receiver’s availability has come into question after missing practice time with a possible knee injury. However, if Brown is good to go, the Bengals’ secondary will have to contend with the league’s best pass-catching duo. Brown (104 rec., 1,297 yards, NFL-best 15 TDs) and fellow wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster (106, 1,389, 6) are only the sixth wide receiver combo in the history of the NFL to have 100-plus receptions in the same season. Brown is the only player in NFL history to record six straight 100-catch seasons.
Brown and Smith-Schuster each racked up more than 100 receiving yards against Cincinnati in Week 6, while Roethlisberger lit up the Bengals’ secondary for 369 passing yards and a touchdown in the win. Brown has a touchdown reception in three consecutive games against Cincinnati as well. Pittsburgh’s high-powered passing attack should have a field day once again on Sunday, but that is somewhat contingent on Brown’s health.
Regardless of the Bengals’ struggles and their brutal injury situation, they have been surprisingly competitive over the last few weeks. They even managed to beat the Raiders in Week 15, a feat the Steelers could not accomplish just one week prior. And make no mistake, Cincinnati will be pulling out all the stops in an effort to ruin the playoff hopes of its most hated rival. That being said, the Steelers aren’t simply going to roll over and let that happen. There’s far too much at stake. And on paper, there is nothing that would suggest the Bengals can pull off the upset at Heinz Field. A superior Pittsburgh team simply has too much firepower across the board. The Steelers can only hope that Cleveland brings its A-game against Baltimore on Sunday as well.
Prediction: Steelers 34, Bengals 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.