Bengals and Steelers reach for AFC North bragging rights

(SportsNetwork.com) - The final regular-season game of the 2014 NFL season will decide the AFC North.

Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have already clinched postseason berths but the North division crown and the corresponding home playoff game it entails will be at stake when the teams square off at Heinz Field Sunday night.

After two consecutive years on the outside looking in at the playoffs the Steelers, who own an NFL record six Super Bowl titles, are relevant again after clinching a spot in the dance with a 20-12 home win over Kansas City last Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass in the triumph and Pittsburgh's defense held strong as the Steelers secured at least a wild-card berth.

Pittsburgh held the Chiefs out of the end zone and limited them to four Cairo Santos field goals.

"A lot of good efforts by a lot of people," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "We realized what next week is. It's a big week for us."

The Steelers also exacted revenge on the Chiefs for last season. In the final week of 2013, Kansas City rested the majority of its starters in a 27-24 overtime loss to San Diego. That ultimately knocked Pittsburgh out of playoff contention.

Roethlisberger completed 18-of-25 passes for 220 yards while MVP candidate Le'Veon Bell rushed 20 times for 63 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh's third consecutive win.

The Bengals, meanwhile, joined the Steelers in the AFC playoffs a day later when Jeremy Hill rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown and Dre Kirkpatrick posted two interceptions of Peyton Manning as Cincinnati clinched a playoff spot for a fourth straight season with a 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos on Monday night.

"We answered a lot of questions, especially on this Monday night thing," defensive tackle Domata Peko said referring to the team's previous woes on nationally televised games. "Everybody was talking about it. We kept it in- house and just got it done. We're just getting started."

Andy Dalton completed 17-of-26 passes for 146 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for the Bengals while Dre Kirkpatrick intercepted a pair of Peyton Manning passes, one going for a pick-six.

"I'm very proud of our guys tonight for our resiliency, our ability to come back after negative plays and put positive plays and string them together," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "Obviously, things to work on and do, but we're still in position, still controlling our destiny, and that's all we can ask for at this point in the year."

Cincinnati still has an outside chance for the AFC's No. 2 seed if its able to get a franchise-record fifth straight road win here, while the Steelers already know they will be playing on wild-card weekend but are looking to avoid packing.

Pittsburgh leads its all-time series with the Bengals by a significant 54-34 margin and has won seven of the past nine matchups, including a 42-21 blowout in Cincinnati on Dec. 7 behind Bell's 235 scrimmage yards and three TDs.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Things have changed dramatically in Pittsburgh and these Steelers are all about an explosive offense led by a new breed of triplets in Roethlisberger, Bell and receiver Antonio Brown.

Pittsburgh is second in the NFL in total offense, piling up 415.4 yards per game, less than one-yard short of league-leading New Orleans. Big Ben and Co. are also second when passing the football (300.5 ypg) and 13th when running it (114.9 ypg).

Roethlisberger already has compiled a single-season club record 4,635 passing yards and needs just one more TD pass to become the first player in franchise history with 250 for his career. The veteran has been especially hot in the second half, throwing for 3,042 yards in his past nine games (338.0 per game) with a 110.4 passer rating over that span.

Brown is his top target and leads the NFL with 122 receptions, needing just two more to surpass Herman Moore (123 in 1995) and Wes Welker (123 in 2009) for the second-most in a season in NFL annals. Brown's consistency really stands out as he has caught five or more balls for 50-plus yards in 31 consecutive games, the longest streak in NFL history.

Bell, meanwhile, has had a breakout season, leading the AFC with 2,115 scrimmage yards (1,341 rushing, 774 receiving), already a single-season Steelers record. The Michigan State product is, perhaps, the most patient runner in football with an innate ability to find the hole and cut back thanks to his tremendous feet.

The Bengals defense trying to stop that triumvirate is 22nd in the NFL, far better at stopping the pass than the run. The Cincy stop unit is middle of the road against teams moving it through the air but it allows 122.1 ypg on the ground and Bell lit them up in space earlier this month.

"They know us and we know them," Tomlin admitted. "It's a big football game. It's going to be a good, classic AFC North football game. How else would you want it? I know our guys are excited."

Win or lose Cincinnati is headed to the postseason for a franchise-record fourth consecutive season, a run which has correlated with Dalton taking over the team. The problem is that the Bengals are 0-3 when they get there so changing that narrative is paramount, making this a virtual must win to get the home playoff game.

"I wouldn't want it any other way," said Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry. "It's always good to be playing meaningful football in December."

Dalton has been inconsistent at times this season with part of the problem being the absences of targets like Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert but "the Red Rifle" has generally played well against the Steelers, passing for 812 yards with five TDs and no picks and a 95.0 passer rating in his last three games against Pittsburgh.

A resurgent running game behind Hill should only help. The former LSU star has 829 rushing yards in his last eight games (103.6 per game) with six TDs and leads all NFL rookies in rushing yards (1,024) rush TDs (nine).

"We just have a new attitude," Bengals star left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "The running game has really sparked kind of a feistiness, a will to make something happen for us. At times, we haven't had that for whatever reason."

The Steelers' defense isn't what it once was, allowing 354.5 yards per game (20th) but veteran coordinator Dick LeBeau has a host of playmakers at the linebacker position.

Veteran James Harrison, who spent 2013 with the Bengals before retuning to Pittsburgh, has 5 1/2 sacks in his past six games while Pro Bowl selection Lawrence Timmons leads the team with 121 tackles.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Steelers should have a little too much horsepower for a Bengals team that has taken a step back on the defensive side of the football after losing former coordinator Mike Zimmer to the head coaching job in Minnesota.

"We're going to treat (this) like a playoff game like we've had the last three weeks," Roethlisberger said. "We still have work to do."

Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 27, Bengals 21