The AFC playoff picture will come into complete focus when the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight on NBC. The final game of the 2014 regular season pits the Bengals (10-4-1) against the Steelers (10-5) with the AFC North division title hanging in the balance.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two of the NFL’s hottest teams since late October, each going 7-2 during that span. The Steelers beat the Bengals 42-21 in Cincinnati three weeks ago, as Pittsburgh exploded for 25 points in the fourth quarter.
Both teams have already secured playoff berths, but seeding is still up in the air. The Bengals clinched their postseason spot on Monday night with an impressive 37-28 win over Denver. With a win or a tie tonight, Cincinnati would claim the AFC North and host a playoff game. The No. 2 seed and a first-round bye are also still in play, but the Bengals need the Broncos to lose to Oakland for that to be a possibility.
The Steelers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and are looking to win their first division title since ’10. Pittsburgh knows it’s playing on Wild Card weekend regardless, but a win would mean at least one more game at Heinz Field.
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
[inline_team_schedule team-id=07 date=20141106 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=8][/inline_team_schedule]
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Take the Air out of the Ball
The Bengals have won five of their past six games. One constant during this stretch has been the running game, specifically rookie Jeremy Hill. With Giovani Bernard battling injuries, Hill has taken over as the main rusher and he has produced. The second-round pick has three games of 140 yards or more on the ground, including a total of 295 in the past two contests – wins over Cleveland and Denver. On the season, Hill is second among running backs at 5.2 yards per carry and he has nine rushing touchdowns. Last week, he gashed the Broncos’ second-ranked rushing defense for 147 yards on 22 carries, the big blow being an 85-yard touchdown gallop in the first quarter that tied the game following a pick-six by Denver’s Aqib Talib. Andy Dalton’s struggles in big games (0-3 in playoff starts) are well documented, which is why it’s critical that Hill makes some noise on the ground. In the first game against Pittsburgh, Hill ran for just 46 yards, but he did that on only eight carries (5.8 ypc), so it was more a lack of opportunity rather than production. The Steelers are sixth in rushing defense (99.3 ypg), but they have allowed at least 140 yards rushing five times. Hill has four such performances by himself, and a fifth tonight could help produce an AFC North championship for the visitors.
[inline_team_schedule team-id=09 date=20141106 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=8][/inline_team_schedule]
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Go Big or Go Home
Historically the Steelers may be known more as a defensive team (think Steel Curtain), but the 2014 edition leans heavily towards the other side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s defense has done a solid job against the run (ranked sixth), but it’s 20th in total yards allowed and 19th in points. On the other hand, the offense is second in the NFL in total yards and passing yards and seventh in points per game. The Steelers are led by its Pro Bowl QB-RB-WR trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger and Bell are second in passing and rushing yards, respectively, while Brown leads the league in both receptions and receiving yards. Bell also is second in yards from scrimmage and he and Brown have combined for 23 touchdowns. These three definitely had an impact in the first game against Cincinnati three weeks ago. Roethlisberger threw for 350 yards with three touchdowns (and no INTs), Bell had 235 total yards (185 rushing) and three scores, and Brown chipped in 117 yards on nine catches. Pittsburgh’s quick-strike ability was on full display, as the Steelers turned a 21-17 fourth-quarter deficit into a 42-21 rout. The biggest plays from the 25-point outburst were a 53-yard touchdown run by Bell and a 94-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t known for being patient or for grinding out drives, and it has several big-play weapons. With a playoff berth already secure and the benefit of playing at home tonight, why change the game plan now?
Both teams are already in the playoffs, but don’t expect either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh to just mail this one in. Not with a division title, a home playoff game, and (for the Bengals) potentially more on the line. The Steelers, however, are the ones who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2011, so they may be a little extra fired up, especially at home. Motivation aside, Pittsburgh has a three-headed monster on offense that has gotten the job done all season, while Cincinnati is relying on a quarterback whose track record in big games isn’t that impressive, a rookie running back and a banged-up wide receiver. Advantage Steelers, who complete their comeback by reclaiming supremacy in the AFC North with a sweep of the Bengals.