The AFC North rivalry between the Bengals and Steelers will continue on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a long-shot to make the playoffs, but a win over Cincinnati would at least extend their chances of competing. The Bengals are trying to hold off the Ravens to win the AFC North crown, and a win against the Steelers would essentially lock up their division championship. This game has major playoff implications on Sunday Night Football.
Meet the Steelers
The Steelers are having an rough year. Pittsburgh started poorly, then rebounded, but have now come back to Earth once again. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been up and down in Todd Haley's offense for the second straight season, and the running game has reacted similarly.
The offense ranks 19th in points per game (22.4) and 31st in rushing yards per game (77.4). At 5-8, the Steelers' defense also has struggled. In order to make the playoffs, the Steelers would have to win their remaining three games and have the Dolphins and Ravens lose all of their remaining contests.
Meet the Bengals
The Bengals are riding high in the AFC North and have quietly put together an impressive season under Marvin Lewis. The Bengals rank 10th in points per game (25.7) and in yards per game (368.8). Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green have continued their brilliant connection in their third year in the league together.
The Bengals' defense has also performed well. Despite losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the unit has kept Cincinnati in position to win games. Opponents have yet to score more than 30 points in a game against Cincy.
Local Takes: Steelers
PaVaSteeler of Behind the Steel Curtain thinks the Haley-Roethlisberger dynamic is not working for Pittsburgh:
At the same time however, the Steelers' front office "retired" Bruce Arians, the coach that helped develop Roethlisberger into the quarterback he is and the one Steeler Nation sees as the embodiment of the Steelers identity, and brought in an offensive coordinator in Todd Haley presumably to develop Roethlisberger into becoming a quarterback who could survive to play for several more years. Even if you ignore the mass media's incessant speculation over the relationship between Roethlisberger and Haley, there have been a sufficient number of episodes of Roethlisberger making comments then apologizing for them later that would indicate some sort of resistance to the direction the Steelers want Roethlisberger to go in the latter years of his career.
During all this, the Steelers have transitioned from a team that could run the ball at will, to one that hasn't had a 100 yard rushing game 20 games, currently the longest drought in the NFL. They drafted Le'Veon Bell to become the back that could return them to rushing effectively, presumably to fulfill the mutually accepted mandate of head coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney. However even in games such as the last one against the Dolphins where it appeared Bell was running effectively, the play calling turned away from the run, just as it appeared to turn away from the effective use of the No Huddle offense Roethlisberger has repeatedly admitted he prefers.
Local Takes: Bengals
West TX Bengals Fan of Cincy Jungle is impressed by the strength of Cincinnati's defense:
The defense just gets it done. Led by Burfict, Zimmer's crew has been able to get off the field enough to achieve a nice time of possession and field position advantage. Essentially, these are our two strongest weapons. When you have depth and better special teams, you can win by attrition over the course of a game. Now the injury issue still is relevant, but everyone has them (and we're hanging in there). We still have a few players who are critical for continued success, but that goes for every team as well. The big tests will come in post-season when we find out whether we can get stops against the game's best QBs.
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In no rush for Kevin Zeitler's return; the narrative about Chris Pressley is really about John Conner http://t.co/vdBFhGqzOT— Josh Kirkendall (@CincyJungle) December 11, 2013
The Steelers might have covered the spread, and even won the game outright, last week against the Dolphins if not for the iffy penalty on Ryan Clark, which Stephen White explained in his Notebook this week. That would have made the Steelers perfect against the spread in their last five games. At home against the Bengals, the Steelers are 4-2 against the spread in their last six. An outright win is probably too much to ask, but covering the spread is very doable here.
The pick: Steelers
The Bengals are 2.5-point favorites on the road against the Steelers, according to Odds Shark.