Division rivals that find themselves in unusual positions are on tap tonight when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field at 8:30 pm. ET on NBC. Marvin Lewis’ Bengals (9-4) could clinch a playoff spot with a win and some help, while Mike Tomlin’s Steelers (5-8) have to be content with playing the roll of spoiler.
Cincinnati leads Baltimore by two games in the AFC North with three to play. A win over Pittsburgh along with a loss or tie by either Baltimore or Miami would put the Bengals into the playoffs for the third straight season, which would be a first for the franchise. If the Bengals win and the Ravens lose or tie, then Cincinnati would claim its eighth division crown and first since 2009.
Pittsburgh meanwhile isn’t worried about the postseason, as the Steelers are all but guaranteed of missing the playoffs for the second straight season. The last time that happened was 1998-2000. The Steelers also are faced with the task of winning out or else they will finish below .500 for the first time since 1999 (6-10).
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Cincinnati defeated Pittsburgh 20-10 in Week 2. Both teams were coming off of season-opening losses, but the Bengals got into the win column at home behind a balanced offensive attack and some stingy defense. The Bengals outgained the Steelers 407-278 on offense, including a commanding 127-44 edge on the ground. Rookie running back Giovani Bernard scored both Bengal touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) and quarterback Andy Dalton completed 25 passes to eight different receivers. The Bengals didn’t turn the ball over, while the Steelers committed two miscues – a Ben Roethlisgerger interception and Dennis Paulson fumble. The Steelers averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and were 3-of-12 on third down conversions. The win was the second in a row for Cincinnati over Pittsburgh, the first time that had happened since the Bengals swept the series in 2009.
Will the Bengals Stick to the Script?
Since losing back-to-back overtime games on the road to Miami and Baltimore, Cincinnati has won three in a row. The recipe for the Bengals’ success this season has pretty much been let the defense do its job while not putting too much pressure on the offense. Cincinnati is eighth in the NFL in total defense (320.5 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (18.8 ppg). The Bengals have given up more than 400 yards in a game once and have held every opponent to 30 points or fewer. The offense has had its moments, in particular a four-game stretch in October, but inconsistency and turnovers have both been issues. The Bengals have produced less than 300 total yards of offense on three different occasions this season and half of their turnovers have come in their four losses. The fact that Cincinnati is 3-3 when scoring 20 points or fewer is a testament to its defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the AFC with 23 total takeaways (13 INTs, 10 fumbles) yet have a minus-1 differential because of the offense’s 24 miscues. As long as the offense can stay out of its own way, Cincinnati’s defense should be able to take care of business tonight.
Can the Steelers Finish Strong?
It has largely been a season to forget for Mike Tomlin and company. After losing their first four games to start the season, the Steelers battled back to 5-6 entering Week 13, but have lost their past two games. Once again, the lack of a running game has stymied an offense that’s been devastated by injuries along the offensive line. Only Jacksonville has rushed for fewer yards than Pittsburgh (77.4 ypg), as the Steelers have mustered a total of five touchdowns on the ground. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 39 times and he’s also responsible for 16 (10 INTs, 6 fumbles) of the team’s 19 turnovers. On the other hand the defense has struggled to produce takeaways and has given up some big numbers to the opposition on more than one occasion. The Steel Curtain didn’t produce a single takeaway in its first four games combined and has just 15 (8 INTs, 7 fumbles) on the season. The 407 yards allowed to Cincinnati in Week 2 are one of three such 400-yard games, including the franchise-record 610 surrendered to New England in Week 9. The 55 points the Patriots scored also represent an all-time low for this defense, which has had trouble consistently stopping the run. Pittsburgh is 24th in the NFL in rushing defense (120.2 ypg) and gave up 181 on the ground in last week’s home loss to Miami. The Steelers’ issues are well documented, but the real question for tonight is does this team have any fight left in it?
Cincinnati Key Player: Andy Dalton, QB
The Bengals’ second-round draft pick (35th overall) in 2011, Dalton is on the verge of doing something that has never been done in franchise history – earn a third straight postseason berth. He is on pace for his first 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown season and also is enjoying a career year in terms of quarterback rating. The problem, however, is that Dalton’s career-best rating at this point is still just 87.7 and while he’s on pace for 31 touchdown passes, he’s also on track for 20 interceptions. Dalton has had his moments of brilliance, such as the three-game stretch in October in which he averaged 345 yards passing per game and posted an 11:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, he followed that up with just six touchdowns and nine picks in his next four outings. Dalton is 0-2 in playoff games in his career and he knows that he needs to play better in the games that count the most. It may not be a postseason game, but tonight on the road against a division rival in a tough environment would be a good place for Dalton to start.
Pittsburgh Key Player: Le’Veon Bell, RB
The Steelers’ second-round pick (48th overall) in April, Bell’s debut was delayed by a preseason foot injury that sidelined him for the first three games. His first season has been a bit of a mixed bag, as he’s rushed for 93 yards on 19 carries in a win over Baltimore, but is averaging 3.4 yards per carry on the season and has scored a total of five touchdowns. Bell missed the first game against Cincinnati and the Steelers’ offense managed just 44 yards on the ground without him. The Bengals are fifth in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 98.2 yards per game and running the ball has been a problem for Pittsburgh all season. A strong finish by Bell, starting tonight, would not only increase the Steelers’ chances of beating the Bengals, but also would serve as a positive sign for both the team and fans alike as the focus shifts to turning things around in 2014.
Barring a pretty big collapse, Cincinnati will be in the playoffs for the third straight season, a first for the franchise. The Bengals also are in the driver’s seat for the AFC North title and have a shot at earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Pittsburgh meanwhile is headed in the opposite direction, pretty much guaranteed of missing the playoffs for the second straight season. The Steelers need to win out if they don’t want to finish below .500 for the first time in nearly 15 years.
The Bengals have done it all season with good defense and some timely contributions from the offense. There’s no reason to expect this team to stray from what has worked for it. The Steelers have had trouble with the running game on both sides of the ball and have had their depth tested by a rash of injuries.
Cincinnati has struggled in the Steel City, having lost four of the past six games at Heinz Field, but this is neither your typical Bengals team nor your typical Steelers squad. In the end, Cincinnati sticks to the script – tough defense, balanced offense, take care of the football – that has worked so well. The Bengals get one step closer to a franchise first by doing something they haven’t done since 1990 – win three in a row against the Steelers.
Cincinnati 23, Pittsburgh 20