There is certainly no love lost between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in what has become one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL. It goes beyond AFC North foes, which became quite evident in last season’s ugly, yet entertaining, AFC wild card matchup. These two teams truly hate each other and that emotion could be on full display once again as Pittsburgh makes the trip to Paul Brown Stadium to take on Cincinnati.
While a Week 2 meeting between the two teams was relatively civil, things could be much different this time around. For starters, notorious instigator Vontaze Burfict, will be on the field for the rematch. Burfict was suspended for the first game for his unsavory actions against Pittsburgh in the wild card game. Further adding fuel to the fire, Le’Veon Bell will be on the field this time around as well. Bell has a grievous history with Burfict and the Bengals in general.
The Steelers come into Sunday’s game riding a wave of momentum and a four-game winning streak that has them sitting atop the AFC North at 8-5. The Bengals (5-7-1) have all but been eliminated from playoff contention, but are in the midst of a modest two-game winning streak.
The Steelers desperately need to win on Sunday. Not only to maintain their narrow lead over Baltimore in the division, but to stay afloat in the closely-contested AFC playoff race. A win won’t do much to help the Bengals in terms of the playoff picture, but there is nothing they would like more than to play the role of spoiler and jeopardize the playoff hopes of their hated rival.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 18 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Pittsburgh -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Boom or Doom for Le’Veon Bell?
It would be fair to say that Bell has been jinxed when it comes to the Bengals over the last two seasons. Questionable hits from Vontaze Burfict and Reggie Nelson in two separate meetings against Cincinnati resulted in serious knee injuries, and a three-game suspension kept him out of the Week 2 meeting earlier this season. Bell has missed all or part of each of the last five games against Cincinnati. In fact, his last complete game against the Bengals came in 2014. It also was the last time Bell played in Cincinnati. But it’s not like the Bengals missed him, considering Bell put up a total of 253 yards and three touchdowns in that game two seasons ago.
Bell comes into Sunday’s game on a serious roll. His 823 total yards and five touchdowns over the last four weeks are by far the most of any running back. Last week he set a new single-game franchise record with 236 rushing yards against Buffalo. The question is, will Bell be able to keep that trend going or will the curse of the Bengals come back to haunt him again?
There is no question that Bell will be a marked man on Sunday. However, if he can manage to come out unscathed, the matchup against a porous Cincinnati run defense lines up favorably for him exact a little payback. Only seven NFL teams have allowed more rushing yards than the Bengals so far. There is a good chance that Bell breaks the jinx, which bodes well for Pittsburgh’s chances as the regular season winds down.
2. Cincinnati Passing Game vs. Pittsburgh Pass Defense
On the surface this appears to be a promising matchup for Andy Dalton and company, as the Bengals rank 11th in the NFL in passing (256 ypg), while the Steelers are 21st against the pass (253 ypg). But when you look at the numbers over the last four weeks, you start realize that Cincinnati may not be able to throw the ball at will on Pittsburgh. Over the last four games, the Steelers have limited opponents to 195 passing yards per game and have as many interceptions as touchdown passes allowed (six). The pass rush has done its part during this stretch with 18 sacks.
Regardless, the Bengals’ best chance to exploit the Pittsburgh defense will be through the air. Dalton likely won’t have favorite target A.J. Green (hamstring) back, but an otherwise-solid passing game, which put up 366 yards through the air in the teams’ first meeting back in Week 2, should be able to do some damage. It just might be a little more difficult this time around.
3. A Tough Row to Hoe for Roethlisberger, Brown and Hill?
Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Jeremy Hill are three of the premier names in the NFL. But Sunday’s matchup could be challenging for all three playmakers. Roethlisberger has been fairly mediocre in road games all season. Meanwhile, a ball-hawking Bengals pass defense enters this game giving up 192 passing yards per content over the last four weeks. Cincinnati has six interceptions and yielded just two touchdown passes during this stretch.
Roethlisberger’s struggles usually impact his All-Pro target, wide receiver Antonio Brown. But something else going against Brown Sunday is the Bengals’ ability to keep elite receivers in check for most of this season. Since Week 8, Cincinnati has not allowed a receiver to surpass 100 yards. And Brown’s worst performance to this point came against the Bengals in Week 2 when he caught just four passes for 39 yards. Brown is one of the toughest in the league to shut down, but nothing is going to come easy on Sunday.
And then there’s Hill, Cincinnati’s leading rusher who statistically has the stiffest challenge on tap. Pittsburgh is fourth in the league in rushing defense, giving up just 90.1 yards per game. But the Steelers have been even tougher over the past four games, limiting opponents to just 62 yards per game on the ground and one touchdown. Hill managed just 22 yards on 11 carries in the Week 2 meeting and will no doubt have his work cut out for him once again.
In a rivalry game of this magnitude, it’s never easy to predict exactly how things will play out. The one thing that does seem likely is that points will be at a premium. The Bengals have not allowed more than 19 points against an opponent over their last four contests, surrendering just five offensive touchdowns in the process. The Steelers’ defense has been very stingy as well, giving up no more than 20 points and just six scores over the last four weeks.
While there aren’t too many matchups for either team to exploit on Sunday, there is one glaring advantage that falls in Pittsburgh’s favor. A red-hot Le’Veon Bell against a suspect Bengals run defense. Bell should provide the spark that puts Pittsburgh over the top on the road. That being said, it will likely be a dogfight to the bitter end, as well as one of the more entertaining games of the season.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Bengals 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.