The Bengals started their AFC title defense this season with a disappointing overtime loss to the Steelers. On Sunday, they'll have a chance to avenge that loss at a key inflection point in their campaign.
Cincinnati is just 5-4 coming out of its Week 10 bye — the exact same record it had last year at this point. But while the Bengals were able to finish strong en route to the Super Bowl in 2021, the challenge will be even tougher in 2022, with six of their final eight opponents currently in line to make the playoffs.
The Bengals will have to beat quality teams down the stretch to make the playoffs — and if they can't, they probably don't deserve to make it anyway. Still, starting the second half by knocking off a losing team is a must.
That proved difficult in Week 1 despite Cincy out-gaining Pittsburgh 432-267 and controlling the clock for 43:42. The Bengals nearly overcame a career-worst four interceptions from Joe Burrow, but Evan McPherson had a PAT blocked at the end of regulation and then missed a 29-yard field goal in OT.
Pittsburgh needed a lot of breaks to come out on top last time, but the Steelers scored an impressive 20-10 win over the Saints last week with the return of reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. So can the Steelers pull off another upset? Or will Cincinnati take a familiar step back toward the playoffs?
Cincinnati (5-4) at Pittsburgh (3-6)
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Joe Burrow find his groove without Ja'Marr Chase?
Burrow ranks fourth in the NFL with 281.7 passing yards per game, but his production has taken a major hit while his top receiver, Chase, remains sidelined with a hip injury. Over the last two games, Burrow is averaging just 219 yards per game with three total touchdowns.
The Bengals still have several productive playmakers left in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but Chase is by far the most dynamic. Removing the best deep threat has a ripple effect on the entire offense.
Without Chase, who is hoping to return next week, the Bengals will likely have to focus even more on short and intermediate passes. Some of that is out of necessity. Despite heavily investing in their offensive line over the offseason, the Bengals are allowing even more pressure than they did in 2021, and Burrow's average time to throw has dropped 2.57 seconds, the third-shortest mark in the NFL.
Getting Burrow back on track will be crucial because Cincinnati's success is deeply tied to his performance. That's true of all quarterbacks but especially true here. Burrow has a 12:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 123.0 passer rating in wins this season and just a 6:6 ratio and 80.3 passer rating in losses.
2. How effective will Minkah Fitzpatrick be?
The Steelers rank 30th in pass defense this season, although things could get even harder depending on how effective one of their best players is. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick underwent an appendectomy last Saturday and missed Week 10 but returned to practice on Thursday.
This would be a quick return from surgery — most players need a few weeks rather than a few days — but Fitzpatrick has been motivated to return quickly after his big showing in the last Bengals game. He had a team-leading 14 tackles, a pass deflection, a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown, and a blocked extra point.
It's hard to read too much into what Fitzpatrick's absence last week meant, considering the opposing quarterback was Andy Dalton. But the Steelers did pick off two passes and hold him to 174 yards. Facing Burrow, though, even without Chase, should still be a completely different challenge.
3. Which Joe Mixon will show up?
Few teams lean on their lead back as much as the Bengals, and Mixon's effectiveness has waxed and waned this season. He has the most carries of any player with under four yards per carry and ranks sixth overall (151). But his 3.9 ypc average belies a 56 percent success rate that ranks fourth in the league.
In the Week 1 game, Mixon only picked up 82 yards on 27 carries — and 31 of those yards came on one run. He had 12 carries for one or fewer yards, and Pittsburgh held him to 15 yards on 12 carries in the second half.
Compare that to Mixon's last outing against an underrated Panthers front, when Mixon piled up 153 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries.
Mixon is unlikely to be as ineffective as he was in Week 1, but it's also hard to see him piling up even five yards per carry — let alone seven. Just two opponents have rushed for more than 4.5 yards per attempt against the Steelers, who rank sixth in run defense.
The Steelers are certainly playing for pride, hoping to avoid a first losing season under head coach Mike Tomlin, but it's clear that the Bengals have more to play for here, in a virtual tie for the final wild-card spot. With a more conservative approach, it's hard to imagine that Burrow throws so many interceptions this time around, and the Bengals otherwise dominated the previous matchup. Expect Cincinnati to exact some revenge with a second consecutive win in Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Steelers 14
*Price as of publication.