(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
The catch: Cincinnati is 0 for its last nine games against the two imminent
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
"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
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
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
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
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 20, Steelers 17
The Sports Network