Two teams will define their season when the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) go to Heinz Field to play the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) on Sunday.
The Baltimore Ravens are in the driver's seat in the AFC North, but the Bengals can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Steelers on Sunday, while the Steelers have to beat the Bengals to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Bengals have been on of the hottest teams in football over the last half of the season. After losing to the Denver Broncos 31-23 in Week 9, Cincinnati has won five of its last six to put itself in position to return to the postseason.
The Steelers are no strangers to the postseason, but things haven't come easy in 2012. Pittsburgh has lost four of its last five games, and will need to beat Cincinnati this week and Cleveland in Week 17 to have a shot at the postseason.
With these two familiar teams fighting for their playoff lives, this is sure to be a physical and entertaining game for the fans. Here's everything you need to know about this classic AFC North matchup.
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
When: Sunday, Dec. 23 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NFL.com
Spread: Pittsburgh Steelers -3 (via Covers.com)
Despite Pittsburgh's recent struggles, Vegas has the Steelers pegged as a slight favorite at home in this must-win game.
The Steelers are a veteran team and their experience is what gives them an edge in this matchup. The Steelers already own a win over Cincinnati on the road and that's why they are favored to win this matchup at home.
However, the Bengals are playing much better since losing by a touchdown to Pittsburgh and the Steelers aren't the same team they were when these two teams met early in the season.
This game should be as close as the spread indicates, but the way these two have been playing it's the Bengals that have the advantage.
Over/Under: 42 (via Covers.com)
Like most AFC North matchups, this should be a physical defensive game.
Both teams post quality defenses that are sure to give the offenses headaches during the game. The Bengals haven't given up more than 19 points to anybody since their Week 9 loss to Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Manning's Broncos have been putting points on just about everyone this season.
Pittsburgh has been efficient on defense this season too. The team's record may not reflect it, but the Steelers are the NFL's top pass defense and fourth-best run defense in the league statistically.
When these two teams met the first time this season, they combined for just under the total of 42, with 41 points. Expect this game to also fall just short of the total here.
Injury Report (via CBS Sports as of December 20)
|DE||Cameron Heyward||Not injury related||Probable|
|DB||Troy Polamalu||Not injury related||Probable|
Fantasy Big Plays
Cincinnati: Jermaine Gresham, TE
Obviously if you own A.J. Green you know that he puts up big fantasy points all the time. He should make for a good play this week too, but Jermaine Gresham is the sneaky-good play on the Bengals this week.
Gresham saw a season-high nine targets last week and caught six of those targets for 63 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Steelers pass defense has been stout, but Jason Witten was able to post good numbers against them last week. With all the attention going to A.J. Green, Gresham should take advantage and be a red zone target for Dalton.
Projected Stats: 6 receptions, 55 yards, 1 TD
Pittsburgh: Jonathan Dwyer, RB
The Pittsburgh running game has been a shell of its former self this season.
Inconsistency in the ground game and a general running-back-by-committee philosophy have frustrated fantasy owners to no end this season. However, owners that are willing to gamble with Dwyer this week should be pleased.
Rashard Mendenhall is back from suspension this week and may steal a few carries, but Dwyer will be called upon to repeat his 17-carry, 122-yard performance in Cincinnati. While he may not be able to reproduce those excellent numbers, he could score a touchdown which adds to his value this week.
Projected Stats: 20 carries, 85 yards, 1 TD
Keys to Victory
Cincinnati: Avoid Turnovers
The Bengals live and die by the play of quarterback Andy Dalton. To win a game of this magnitude on the road he'll need to have great performance.
The most important part of that performance must be an interception-free game.
In the Bengals' eight victories this season, Dalton has 20 touchdowns to only five interceptions. In the Bengals' six losses this season, he has seven touchdowns to nine interceptions. Clearly, Dalton's ability to pass on this defense without turning it over will be the key.
Pittsburgh: Offensive Line Play
The offensive line has been a huge issue for the Steelers all season and they will need to see improvement in all facets of the game to beat Cincinnati.
Even though Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace are two dangerous deep threats, Roethlisberger has rarely connected with them because seven-step drops have been out of the question thanks to shoddy protection.
In this game the offensive line must open up holes for Dwyer and Mendenhall. Keeping Roethlisberger's jersey clean will also be key. If they can create time for Roethlisberger the offense will be much more dangerous.
These two teams are both going to bring everything they have as the season is on the line.
On one hand, you have the veteran Steelers. Many of these guys have become accustomed to making the playoffs and have experience in these types of games.
On the other hand, you have the young Bengals that are coming off of a playoff season in 2011 and want to prove that they are real contenders in 2012. This one should be a physical game that is decided in the trenches.
If so, this game favors the Bengals. Cincinnati's offensive line has played better this season and its loss to Pittsburgh was a little too long ago this season to really draw any conclusions about this game.
Final Score: Cincinnati 20, Pittsburgh 17