The Bengals could clinch the AFC North if a few different scenarios play out this week. The most feasible requires a Bengals win and a Ravens defeat. Meanwhile, the Steelers face the prospect of their playoff hopes evaporating with a loss.
The two teams will go at it on Sunday Night Football. It’s a big stage for what, in any other year, would have been a big game. It’s a testament to the history of this fixture, and Mike Tomlin’s side will undoubtedly be wondering what might have been. The Bengals have won the last two times they met, most recently in a 20-10 victory in Week 2 at home.
After bumping off the Indianapolis Colts in a game touted as having a playoff feel, the Bengals are unlikely to be intimidated by a Steelers team that they’ve already beaten once this year.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Cincinnati needs to do to avoid an upset in Week 15.
Look for the big play
For the first time in a long time, the Bengals have achieved balance between their running game and their passing game. Against the Colts, Andy Dalton found success thanks to great performances from his offensive line and running backs. In doing so, he spread the ball around to seven different receivers.
If the Bengals can challenge Pittsburgh through the air, the results should be good. The Steelers have been awful at giving up big plays to opposing teams, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Tomlin pointed out that the number of “splash” plays allowed by the defense has been a recurring problem all season.
The Steelers have allowed a league-high 11 plays of 50 yards or longer, including seven passes. The Dolphins had a 55-yard run by Daniel Thomas that set up the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
With Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green on the roster, you have to feel good about that statistic.
With Terence Newman sidelined, Dre Kirkpatrick will start alongside Adam Jones on Sunday night. Marvin Lewis has heaped praise on the second-year backup cornerback, revealing that Newman and Jones had to fight to keep their jobs from him. They’ll need Kirkpatrick to do more than just fill in if they want to stop Big Ben on Sunday. Don’t forget that the defense allowed Andrew Luck to throw for four TDs last week.
He has not thrown an interception in four straight games and his 24 touchdown passes are the second-most through 13 games in team history. In last week’s loss to Miami, Roethlisberger was 23 of 39 for 349 yards and three touchdowns with a passer rating of 114.2. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 27 straight games, including the playoffs.
Kirkpatrick will be tested early and often. His performance will play a role in deciding the outcome of this game.
Bring the heat
The Bengals’ pass rush could be in for a bumper day on Sunday, as the Steelers continue to struggle to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright, as noted by Eli Kaberon of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports):
Cincinnati has also thrived behind one of the NFL's top pass rushes. Though no player has more than seven sacks, 12 have recorded at least one and three have six or more quarterback takedowns.
That should be a concern for the Steelers (5-8), who have had trouble this season protecting Ben Roethlisberger.
Due to various injuries on the offensive line, Pittsburgh's blocking has been substandard, with Roethlisberger absorbing 39 sacks - tied for third most in the NFL. The Bengals took the two-time Super Bowl winner down twice in a 20-10 home win Sept. 16.
The Bengals failed to record a single sack on Andrew Luck last week, in what was a strong performance from the Colts O-line. With a depleted secondary, the Bengals can’t risk allowing Roethlisberger the same luxury.
I don't think there's a lot of respect for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cincinnati. I don't think they necessarily understand the history, or know the history, nor care about it.
It’s hard to tell where Clark is getting his information from. Based on player interviews, the Bengals roster has had nothing but praise for the Steelers in the buildup to this game.
Clark’s comments may have just been a way to get his team fired up before the game. However, they might not even have been necessary. A loss will guarantee Pittsburgh its first losing season in nearly a decade, and it won’t want the Bengals to provide the dagger. It’ll also be keen to do whatever damage it can to Cincinnati’s postseason seeding. Factoring in a frosty night game, home-field advantage and prime-time coverage, you’ve got the makings of a fierce ball game.