If the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday they will almost assuredly win the AFC North. Standing 2 1/2 games ahead of the Steelers, the 6-0 Bengals have been so healthy they have yet to make a roster change.
Know those skeptics quarterback Andy Dalton has? He's the NFL's top-ranked passer. The Bengals' offensive line has allowed only six sacks, second best in the NFL. They've displayed innovation in practice, utilizing GPS technology and less physicality at week's end, and half their victories have been by more than one score.
Yet the Bengals are not gloating, instead showing the respect for the Steelers (4-3) that Pittsburgh has earned over the years. An impressive start means nothing without victory against the traditional division power.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has come to a less-than-surprising conclusion. They're not going anywhere without Ben Roethlisberger. Know the fans who said they'd be happy with the Steelers going 2-2 with Big Ben out? That's what they've done, complete with losses to a pair of five-loss teams.
Does the AFC belong to Cincy, New England and Denver this year? Or can the Steelers enter into the mix? We'll likely know late Sunday afternoon.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Bengals -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Roethlisberger Play?
The Steelers would have little chance of winning without Big Ben, but the question is if he will be rushed back from his knee injury. There have been times when Roethlisberger came back from injury and it revived the franchise, witness the 2005 Super Bowl season. Other times, such as 2006 and '11, he also was rushed back and the result was poor.
In 2006, Roethlisberger came back only one week after undergoing an appendectomy. In the ensuing 9-0 loss at Jacksonville Roethlisberger was physically weak. Furthermore, the game set the tone for the Steelers' 2-6 start in Bill Cowher's final season as Pittsburgh's head coach.
Five years later Roethlisberger was asked to play on a bum ankle at the end of the season, and not only did the Steelers' offense struggle down the stretch but he was sluggish in the playoffs, completing just 22 of 40 pass attempts and suffering five sacks in an overtime defeat to Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos.
The problem is that the Steelers don't have a Charlie Batch to pinch hit. Last week in a 23-13 loss at Kansas City, newly christened second-string quarterback Landry Jones committed three turnovers and many of his passes were underthrown.
Yes, he did have an impressive debut against Arizona the week before, but it likely came after the Cardinals' defense had prepared for Michael Vick, who was held to just six yards passing before leaving in the third quarter with a hamstring injury.
2. The running games
Le'Veon Bell kept the Steelers afloat during Roethlisberger's absence with his exceptional abilities. Against Kansas City there were times everyone knew Bell would get the ball, then grind out, say, a 12-yard gain off right tackle.
Roethlisberger and Bell have only played one full half together this season, but Bell has averaged more than 20 carries a game and would likely be the NFL's leading rusher if not for a two-game suspension to open the season.
So even with Roethlisberger back, doesn't it make sense the Steelers will be more inclined to run the ball on 3rd-and-2? Would you want your only hope at quarterback to drop back and throw any more than he has to in his first game back from injury with two starters out on the offensive line, especially with such a strong ground game? And if the Steelers go back to attempting 2-point conversions after touchdowns, could Bell become more of a factor than a rollout pass?
The interesting thing about Cincinnati's running game is its leading rusher, Giovani Bernard, is not the starter. That honor belongs to Jeremy Hill, who has roughly half the yards of Bernard but more than double the touchdowns (5 to 2).
Also of note is the presence of running back Ben Tate on the Bengals' roster. Tate started the Steelers' playoff loss against Baltimore last year.
3. Dalton against the Steelers' pass defense
The Steelers' defense has improved from last season, where the team was built to win 51-34 games, to this season, where they have triumphed by a 12-6 score. They've done it with a revived pass rush thanks to new defensive coordinator's Keith Butler's Bison Blitz, which has often asked players such as cornerback William Gay to come out of nowhere to rush the passer.
Yet they are still allowing 277 yards a game through the air. If this trend continues it would be the worst total in team history.
Such statistics can be misleading; the Steelers had the worst pass defense in the NFL in 1960, for instance, but since teams did not throw as much as they do now they did not give up as many yards. Colin Kaepernick threw for a lot of garbage time yards while losing 43-18 to the Steelers; Carson Palmer threw for 421 yards yet could only produce 13 points in another loss.
Still, there has been drama around the Steelers' secondary; will safety Will Allen return? Will Cortez Allen be missed? Why did they trade for Brandon Boykin if they aren't going to play him?
With the Bengals' pass protection so good, and the season Dalton is having, this may be the season's most significant opportunity for the Steelers to show just how talented their secondary is or is not.
If all things are equal, the Steelers' offense is more diverse than the Bengals'. But all things are not equal.
Prediction: Bengals 25, Steelers 23
— 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.