Published December 21, 2012
| Sports Network
Call it "Survivor, AFC North."
Though the always competitive divisional race looked all but done a few weeks ago, the Cincinnati Bengals have somehow made it to the NFL version of the final tribunal this weekend at Heinz Field.
They'll visit the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday while sandwiched between the third-place hosts and the first-place Baltimore Ravens, whom they'll face next week in the season finale.
The 8-6 Bengals will eliminate the 7-7 Steelers with a win this weekend, and a subsequent win against the Ravens -- now 9-5 after a 9-2 start -- could yield the North championship, assuming Baltimore loses this week to the New York Giants.
The catch: Cincinnati is 0 for its last nine games against the two imminent foes.
Pittsburgh has lost four of five after its own 6-3 start. Last week, it lost a late fourth-quarter lead and dropped a 27-24 overtime decision to the Dallas Cowboys.
"We have no choice but to put it behind us," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We control our own destiny. At the end of the day, that is all you can ask for."
Wins in its final two games -- they face Cleveland next week -- would ensure the Steelers an AFC wild card playoff slot. Two wins and two Baltimore losses mean Pittsburgh wins the division.
Baltimore wins the North if it splits the final two, or it can even win the North with two straight losses if the Steelers and Bengals each drop a game.
"We're picking up momentum," Cincinnati safety Chris Crocker said. "These teams are postseason teams every year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always in the postseason and they always go deep, so it's important for us to play well against them now in order to go in with some momentum if we do make the postseason."
Unlike the Steelers and Ravens, the Bengals come in flush with momentum. Their skein moved to five wins in six games with a 34-13 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
Still, quarterback Andy Dalton has found kryptonite in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, going 0-6 with a 64.1 passer rating.
He's thrown three TD passes and three interceptions -- with a 72.0 rating -- in December. He had nine touchdowns, no interceptions and a 117.2 rating in the final three games of November.
"I've had chances and I haven't hit them," Dalton said. "I expect to play better myself, and I'm going to play better."
In a 24-17 home loss to the Steelers in October, in which the Steelers rallied from a 14-3 hole, Dalton completed half of his 28 throws for 105 yards, a TD and an interception. Pittsburgh was dominant offensively, outgaining the Bengals, 431-184, getting 122 rush yards from Jonathan Dwyer and 278 in the air from Ben Roethlisberger.
Dalton's favorite target, wideout A.J. Green, had a single catch for eight yards and a TD while being covered by cornerback Ike Taylor. This time, however, Taylor is out with a broken ankle.
Also dinged up in the defensive backfield are corners Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis, and nickel back DeMarcus Van Dyke was placed on IR after separating his shoulder. Allen is a 50/50 bet to play this week, but Lewis is more questionable after re-tweaking his groin in a midweek practice.
Next in line is Josh Victorian, a practice squad pickup who was a target for Tony Romo last week.
"We are going to have our hands full," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said.
On defense, the Bengals have surrendered a league-best 12.5 points per week for the past six games while forcing 15 turnovers. Meantime, the Steelers have some internal turmoil after Roethlisberger's post-game criticism of offensive coordinator Todd Haley's play selection against Dallas.
Since the day Roethlisberger went out with a shoulder injury last month, Pittsburgh has 18 turnovers.
"There are obviously times that we don't (agree), but we get that ironed out," Roethlisberger said. "I'm sure it's that way with every position player and their coach. But it's nothing that is a big deal. You work it out, you talk about it and you get it figured out."
Running the football could go a long way toward making that happen. Pittsburgh has won six of seven games in which it ran for at least 95 yards, including 167 against the Bengals. In the last five games against Cincinnati, the Steelers have averaged a stellar 130.4 per game.
The Bengals have run well against everyone else, averaging 168.2 in their last five games this season but less than 80 per game in the last five against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers lead the all-time series, 52-32, and have won 13 of the last 17 games. The October win also included rookie Chris Rainey's first career score ��� an 11-yard run. Last time they played in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were 35-7 winners in December 2011. Tomlin is 9-2 in his career against Cincinnati, while Lewis is 5-15 in 20 meetings with Pittsburgh.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Something's gotta give. The Bengals are ninth in the league with just 101 yards allowed on the ground per week, but they were gashed for 66 more than that when they last faced the Steelers. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh gained just 69 yards on the ground last week against Dallas, but clearly has the potential for more.
Cincinnati has ramped up its defense since the last matchup and will likely prompt Haley to mix things up this time rather than simply plowing ahead. Expect play-action fakes from Roethlisberger that could open Cincinnati up some deep shots down the field.
OK, it's put up or shut up time for Dalton. Want to make the playoffs? Go to a hostile foe's home stadium and end a prolonged streak. Lose this week and find yourself in the same situation next week against another team that's been difficult to beat. It says here, with Green involved in a more favorable defensive matchup, that the second-year passer will do enough to turn the corner.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 20, Steelers 17