The funny thing about the Pittsburgh Steelers is they've almost done a complete turnaround from last season, and it's proven successful.
No longer are they leading the league in all major defensive categories, but at the same time, they're not near the middle of the road in all offensive categories either.
They boast both the fifth ranked offense in the league and the fifth ranked defense in the league. Could a team be more complete?
Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson seems to have found himself again, and is making as strong a case as anyone for Comeback Player Of The Year (I'm looking at you, Tom Brady), and will look to leave his mark on the defending Super Bowl Champions.
The difference between this game and the last time the two teams went head to head is almost the same difference as black is to white, or day is to night.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been transforming, evolving if you will.
No longer do they allow teams to come back on them in the fourth quarter and no longer is the defense taking a Baltimore Ravens-esque step back. Sunday, when the two teams sitting atop of the AFC North division clash, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu will be there.
You can bet that is weighing heavily on Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer's mind.
The Bengals and Palmer are looking to win the division for the first time since 2005. During that postseason they were beat by the Steelers and Palmer went down in the first quarter after a Kimo von-Oelhoffen hit to the knee. The Steelers of course went on to win Super Bowl XL.
The funny thing about that is that if Palmer had not of been injured, the complexion of that game may have been very different. On the play that Palmer was hurt, he completed a 66-yard pass to wide receiver Chris Henry. With plays like that, there is no way the Steel City comes out of that game victorious.
But the past is the past. It doesn't mean anything now.
And that's exactly the attitude we see in the NFL. Team's need to be looking to the future, and once the game comes, they look at the present. You've got to keep looking ahead and forging your name alongside those of the greats.
The talk around the internet is all about this being a "must win" game for the Steelers. Well, what about the Bengals?
Is it not a must win for them as well? Because I for one think it is.
If they beat Pittsburgh Sunday, they'll have the AFC North essentially locked away and will have swept the World Champions this season. With a loss, they go back to being the "same old Bengals" that we've seen time and again over the years.
For all of the teams that I hype, the Bengals have never been a part of that illustrious group. A group that includes (but is not limited to) the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens.
I've never been one to talk much on the Bengals because I generally find myself saying something disparaging about them. That of course is not fair, nor is it professional, so I generally keep my mouth shut.
I will say this though, Marvin Lewis has that group playing well and stifled any and all distractions from Chad Ochocinco—I still hate calling him that by the way—telling him that he was not allowed to send any gifts to the Steelers secondary.
Lewis knows how big this game is. The players know how big this game is. The only matchup getting more hype this week is the Patriots/Colts game, and rightfully so.
Should the Steelers win this game, they will more than likely see a top-three seed in the AFC come playoff time, and more than likely have shut the Bengals down for the season.
But, there's a reason that the game has to be played.
The Steelers secondary is going to have to hit the Bengals receivers hard, early, and often. If they allow Ochocinco to burn them, then this one's going in favor of the Bengals. But should the secondary step up against Palmer and company, then the Steelers will win this game.
Good luck Ike Taylor, hopefully you don't have any mental lapses as you've been prone to this season for some odd reason.
Now, I know what some are thinking.
"The Bengals are only ranked 18th in passing offense this year, how on Earth does stopping the pass win the game?"
Due to the fact that the Steelers front seven will more than likely be able to stuff Benson and keep the Bengals well below their running average, it's going to force them to throw the ball more. Applying pressure on Palmer is key. Force him into quick throws and mistakes.
The biggest thing to watch for is going to be the Steelers pass defense against the short slant patterns that have been tearing them apart all season. I see it, so I KNOW the Bengals coaching staff and Palmer see it. Look for them to get the ball to their receivers quickly.
The good news for the Steelers is that the Bengals are allowing nearly 250 yards per game through the air, the bad news is that they're second behind the Steelers in rush defense.
Rashard Mendenhall is going to have his work cut out for him, but I'm sure the vision of Larry Johnson in the front row wearing a No. 34 jersey is reassuring. He absolutely MUST hold onto the ball in this game, it cannot be put in the hands of the Bengals on a foolish play.
Also, I'd like to see some hard nosed running out of him, instead of breaking a big run and stepping out of bounds while the team is trying to RUN THE CLOCK.
Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to put points on the board, and there's really no reason to think that he can't do so. With targets like Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Mendenhall, and Mewelde Moore; even JaMarcus Russell could get some nice passing stats.
Like Mendenhall, No. 7 is going to have to protect the ball and keep it out of the Cincinnati defense's hands. A turnover in this game could prove deadly for the Steel City.
History doesn't mean much, but it's fun to look at, right? The Bengals haven't beaten the Steelers twice in a row since 1998. Hopefully, that 1998 doesn't turn into 2009.
I think the Steelers gut up and take this one. I see them playing their hearts out and gutting a win out for the loyal fans they've secured over the years by being such a dominant force in the AFC.
TJ's Prediction: Steelers 24 Bengals 21