The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals have everything on the line in the AFC Wild Card Round Saturday.
Cincinnati hit the road and took the first meeting between these two 16-10 in Week 8, only to lose quarterback Andy Dalton to a thumb injury in the first quarter of the Week 14 rematch, a game Pittsburgh claimed on the road, 33-20.
The two meet again under the lights of Paul Brown Stadium, with Cincinnati likely down Dalton and Pittsburgh without lead back DeAngelo Williams, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Williams suffered an ankle injury against the Cleveland Browns in the regular-season finale.
Here's a look at details surrounding the league's top rivalry and a few notable predictions before projecting a winner outright.
When: Saturday, January 9, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Live Stream: CBSSports.com
Spread: Pittsburgh (-3)
Ben Roethlisberger Struggles to Produce
It sounds like clutching at straws to suggest Ben Roethlisberger could struggle.
Close examination, though, shows Big Ben can be as erratic as it gets, and he isn't especially good against this Bengals defense.
Over his past three games, Big Ben has six touchdowns and as many interceptions, with two picks in each contest. His two outings against the Bengals this year say quite a lot too:
|Week 8/CIN 16-10||28||45||262||62.2||1||3|
|Week 14/PIT 33-20||30||39||282||76.9||0||1|
Maybe it shouldn't come as a shock. Cincinnati boasts the league's second-best scoring defense, which allows just 17.4 points per game. It also ranks seventh against the rush at 92.3 yards permitted per game, which forces offenses into a predictable aerial approach.
There are two more critical factors to consider surrounding Big Ben this weekend. In the win, he didn't have to deal with Cincinnati top corner Adam Jones and still struggled while leaning on Williams, who gained 76 yards and had two scores.
Now Jones is back and Williams is out, placing an even bigger emphasis on Roethlisberger's arm against a defense he habitually struggles with. It's not impossible for Big Ben to pull a gigantic performance out of his hat, but it's simply not likely.
Look for Roethlisberger to struggle most of the day with zero big-play threats behind him in the backfield.
Cincinnati Cruises on Ground
Formerly a run-first team, Cincinnati got away from those roots this season with Dalton playing so well. He capitalized on having receiver A.J. Green fully healthy, as well as WR Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert for most of the year.
Things have unraveled as of late, of course. Dalton was injured against the Steelers in Week 14 and hasn't been seen since. Backup AJ McCarron did throw a pair of touchdowns and interceptions in surprise relief and led the team to a 2-1 record with no picks down the stretch. But odds are Cincinnati wants to get back to running the ball.
It should. Jeremy Hill rushed for 60 yards on 15 carries in the first game against the Steelers. In the second, Giovani Bernard found room for 40 on just six. The former enters the playoffs after his best game of the season, a six-yards-per-carry effort with 96 total and a score in the Bengals final regular-season game against Baltimore.
"This team's built for this kind of stuff," Dalton said, according to ESPN.com. "AJ's going to do a good job when things happen."
Pittsburgh ranks fifth against the run, but it might find itself stretched thin trying to account for Green and Eifert on the field. If Roethlisberger is struggling on the opposite side of the ball, it means more exposure in the elements to the bruising one-two punch the Bengals tout in the backfield.
With McCarron already finding success against the Steelers in a surprise start, and now three games deep as a starter, Pittsburgh won't have a choice but to throw much of its resources at the deepest set of weapons in the league, which figures to open things up for Hill and Bernard.
It's all too easy to look at this one and declare Dalton's absence the deciding factor.
But this is a deceptive game these days, "this" being football in general, where McCarron, Alex Smith, Brian Hoyer and Teddy Bridgewater are playoff quarterbacks.
McCarron can produce, especially against a Pittsburgh defense ranked 30th against the pass. His host of weapons can too. Once ahead, the ground game can take over, while the defense that has already proven itself twice against Big Ben, even without its top corner, does its job.
Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game in a long time. But if the franchise is to do it under head coach Marvin Lewis, as expected, it will come in a grind-it-out affair with a heavy dose of the run game backed by an elite defense.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Steelers 24