Cincinnati likely already has the AFC North division sewn up, but a win over the Steelers would seal the deal
For all the talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers being the team you don't want to face in the playoffs following their 45-10 rout of the Indianapolis Colts, the Cincinnati Bengals know if they defeat the Steelers this Sunday at home, they'll be the AFC North Division champions.
They'd also be in line for a bye and potentially home-field advantage, which if both New England and Cincinnati (10-2) won out would be determined by "strength of victory" - the winning percentage of the opponents a team has defeated.
The team that wins this game may ultimately be viewed as New England's top rival to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50. Of course, if Pittsburgh (7-5) doesn't win the game, it will likely be a game out of the playoffs, as if the season ended today the Steelers would lose out on a playoff berth because of tiebreakers.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Three Things to Watch
For their part, Cincinnati has been a healthy team this season. Marvin Lewis has handled things in a way that might make Bear Bryant turn over in his grave, giving his team an extra day of rest during the week. The result is the Bengals have made only four transactions this season and have only put one player on injured reserve. Compare that to the Steelers, who have 17 players on injured reserve or similar list.
But the long season might be taking its toll on the Bengals. Cornerback Adam Jones is out with a foot injury. Two other members of the Cincinnati secondary, cornerback Leon Hall and safety George Iloka, missed practice this week. Cornerback Josh Shaw left last Sunday's 37-3 victory against Cleveland early due to a back injury, and cornerback D'Andre Kirkpatrick isn't at 100 percent. Considering how well the Steelers' passing game has been clicking recently, this could be a serious problem for Cincinnati.
More than that, however, is the fact Steelers-Bengals games have historically been blood baths. Cincinnati wide receiver Marvin Jones has commented how physical the game will likely be, both teams are upset over allegations of cheap shots resulting in injuries to players (Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell has suffered season-ending injuries in the Steelers' last two games against the Bengals), and really the only positives one could say about player safety in this game is Cincinnati hasn't played on the artificial surface of Riverfront Stadium in 15 years and Kimo von Oelhoffen has been long retired.
The point is this game could easily be decided by a reserve.
2. Hey, is that Brandon Boykin?
All year long fans wondered why the Pittsburgh Steelers traded for cornerback Brandon Boykin if they weren't going to play him, especially with the team ranked 29th in the NFL in pass defense.
When he was finally placed in the cornerback rotation, he had an interception against the Colts last Sunday in Pittsburgh's 45-10 victory and played roughly two-thirds of the game on defense.
Boykin's play was the shot in the arm the Steelers' secondary needed. He's expected to continue in this role as a cornerback, alternating time with Antwon Blake.
3. Cincinnati's deception against Pittsburgh's basics
Back in the 1980s, Bengals-Steelers games often featured a contrast in cultures. Chuck Noll realized his post-Terry Bradshaw teams were best suited to pound the ball with trap plays, while Sam Wyche rejoiced in trying trick plays (a 24-22 Cincinnati victory in 1986 was won when punter Jeff Hayes ran 61 yards on a fake for a touchdown in the fourth quarter).
It's almost like those days are back. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been experimenting with things like passing out of three-tackle sets, while the only loss the Steelers suffered in their last four games came when starting running back DeAngelo Williams had only eight carries against Seattle.
Jackson has roles for both running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, while Williams is the a single, and effective pounder of the Pittsburgh ground game.
Question- could Bernard only have only one carry in the Bengals' 16-10 victory in the previous matchup between the two teams to try to deceive the Steelers in this game?
While both these teams could match each other pass for pass, it's difficult to score if you don't have the ball. The team that wins could easily be the team that wins the time of possession battle.
There is a feeling the team that loses this game will fall from the ranks of the NFL's best. If Cincinnati loses, questions will abound if the Bengals can really win big games and if they can get a first-round bye. If the Steelers lose, they may not make the playoffs.
Cincinnati is coming off a 37-3 victory against perhaps the worst team in football that was starting in essence a third-string quarterback. Now the Bengals must face the second-ranked offense in the NFL and Ben Roethlisberger with a banged-up secondary.
Sure, they hit a home run off a changeup in their last time at-bat, but what can the Bengals do against a fastball pitcher?
Prediction: Steelers 25, Bengals 24
— 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.