Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: 5 Things to Know
Things are getting pretty tight in the AFC North as the most confusing division in football continues its streak of obscure results. The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a loss to the 5-7 New Orleans Saints in the mess that is the NFC South whereas the Cincinnati Bengals escaped with a 14-13 win against the 2-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to give them a three game win streak.
In fact the Bengals were the only AFC North team to win last week which has put them in prime position at 8-3-1 to take the AFC North crown, as they are currently a game and a half ahead of the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns all tied at 7-5.
These two also meet in the last week of the season, both of these games are going to huge, the difference between a divisional title and missing the playoffs completely. Not fun to be a Steelers fan right now I'll be honest. But what are the key things to watch in this Sunday's game?
1. The battle of the running games.
Much has been made of the Steelers return to a respectable running game this year, but the Bengals have actually had a better time running the ball, averaging 124.5 yards per game on the ground compared to Pittsburgh's 118.1, not much of a difference but every yard matters when the matchup is as even as this one.
The Bengals will have to deal with Le'Veon Bell who has just surpassed 1000 rushing yards this season, in addition to 643 receiving yards. While the Steelers will be trying to contain the breakout season of Jeremy Hill and the returning Giovani Bernard. All without Brett Keisel who has been plaecd on the injured reserve list with a tricep injury he suffered against the Saints.
2. The quarterback battle.
Ben Roethlisberger has cooled off a little bit after his 12 touchdowns in two weeks earlier in the year, but he is still having one of his best seasons. He needs to shake off a rough couple of games to make sure the Steelers offence is ticking just right and has the best chance of success. Andy Dalton has been, well, Andy Dalton, that is to say shaky performances. 13 touchdowns to 13 interceptions so far this year is not what you want from a franchise quarterback. Whichever signal caller has the better game will lead his team to victory.
3. Can the Bengals stop Antonio Brown?
Brown is the best wide receiver in the league right now. You could argue this but here are the numbers: leading the league in both yards and receptions and also leading all receivers with 11 touchdowns, only Broncos tight end Julius Thomas has more with 12 touchdown grabs. How the 14th ranked pass defence in the league deals with him will be the difference between the Steelers scoring 14 points, and the Steelers scoring 30+ points.
4. Will the Steelers' secondary make an appearance this week?
Because they seemed pretty invisible last week. Sure against the Saints the Steelers held Jimmy Graham to zero catches, but Drew Brees didn't need to throw to his tight end when his wide receivers were wide open down field. Brees finished with five touchdowns and Kenny Stills had 162 receiving yards. If the Steelers play this poorly again, A.J Green will have a career day.
5. Who makes the playoffs?
Well a win for the Bengals puts them in great shape, but a tough schedule of the Browns in Cleveland, the Denver Broncos and Steelers again, at Heinz Field, could slow them down. The Steelers have to play the Bengals, a trip to the Atlanta Falcons, then the Kansas City Chiefs and Bengals at home. Anything can happen!
That is why I'm not making a pick for the AFC North winner, its too tough to call, let alone these two. Who knows what the Browns and Ravens have in their locker too? The whole division could be turned on its head in the next few weeks, and I'm going to be praying every night in my Heath Miller jersey that it all works out fine for Pittsburgh, because it would be nice to have some playoff football again.