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Know Thy Enemy: Cincinnati Bengals

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When last we met the Bengals, our star running back was being carted off the field with a season ending knee injury while the team itself saw it’s division title hopes vanish with a 16-10 loss. This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Cincinnati Bengals in a pivotal week 14 match-up for vastly different reasons. The Bengals have the AFC North all but clinched while the Steelers find themselves in a fight for a Wild Card that currently sees them on the outside looking in. Unfortunately, the Bengals also have something to play for.

Since that week 8 match-up, Denver has lost Peyton Manning and cast their fortunes on Brock Osweiler. While Brock has played well – actually, nearly anybody would be an improvement on the rapidly declining Manning – it’s still a playoff team with a first year starter asking them to carry the offense. Meanwhile, the Patriots have been decimated on offense to where they’ve fallen all the way to the #3 seed if the playoffs were to start today. Until they get Gronk back, they’re gonna struggle.

Which, improbably, leaves the Bengals as the top seed in the AFC. What’s more, they’re arguably the most complete team in the conference, with a solid defense and excellent offense. On paper, Cincy should be the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC if not for their reputation as playoff chokers. Obviously that’s not something they can rectify until December rolls around.

Andy Dalton is enjoying his best season yet, having thrown for over 3,000 yards with a sparkling 25/6 TD-to-INT ratio. Of course, last time we played the Bengals the Steelers maligned secondary picked him off twice in what was a sloppy game for both sides. Dalton is a fine quarterback who needs that one playoff run ala Joe Flacco to shake the questions about him being a “winner.” Until then, he’ll continue to carry the rep of being the guy who shrinks under the spotlight.

While the Ginger Rifle had a bad game when last we met, Ben Roethlisberger was downright atrocious. In his first game back after the knee injury sidelined him for a month, Big Ben threw three picks and was generally ineffective most of the game. It seemed almost like the team went into shock when Le’Veon Bell went down and the offense couldn’t get back on track. Before he left, the game was actually shaping up as a shoot-out as both teams drove right down the field on their opening possessions.

Since then, we’ve seen the Steelers offense put up some video game numbers against pretty good teams. They’ll have to do the same this Sunday if they want to win. Cincy’s defense doesn’t wow you in any one area but they’re just overall solid, ranking 13th against the pass (240 yards/game), 9th against the run (a smidge under 100 yards/game) and, most importantly, 1st in fewest points allowed. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins anchor a line that can get after they quarterback while Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall are probably the best safety tandem in the league.

The Steelers defense had a really good game against the Bengals last time, surrendering only 16 points while constantly having to bail out the offense following turnovers. They’re coming off a good performance against the Colts although Cincy has a lot more offensive weapons than Indy. Even if TE Tyler Eifert, who leads the league with 12 TD catches, misses another week with a neck injury the secondary will still have to contend with Marvin Jones and Mohamad Sanu in addition to AJ Green. We may not be able to stop Cincy but we will have to contain them enough for our high powered offense to pull away if the Steelers have any hope of winning.

The next two weeks will make or break the Black and Gold’s season. This week we have the 10-2 Bengals, next week we have the 10-2 Broncos. The Steelers need to win at least one of those games (and sweep the last two games against the reeling Browns and Ratbirds) to have a realistic shot at a Wild Card. Even if we win out we could still miss the playoffs but two losses the next two weeks would certainly do us in. The Steelers need one big win and if it comes at the hands of our division rival, so much the better.