For the third time this season we get to see the Pittsburgh Steelers taking on the Cincinnati Bengals in a wildcard weekend match-up. The Steelers snuck into the AFC playoff race thanks to the Buffalo Bills defeating the New York Jets in Week 17 (cheers lads). The Bengals, however, started their season strong, going 8-0 before falling to the Texans in week 10. The Steelers were somewhat slow starters this season, hampered by injuries and suspensions to key players, particularly on offense, as they limped out to a 4-4 start. Fueled by a stellar passing game and the strong running of DeAngelo Williams the Steelers came on strong in the second half of the season, finishing 6-2 and grabbing the final play-off spot in the AFC. Steelers games have been like aerial warfare this season as their pass defense has struggled – ranking 30th in the league, a stark contrast to their 5th ranked run defense. The Bengals have been on fire this season, racing out to that 8-0 start and having the AFC North division basically locked up from a month out. The Bengals were looking like they had the inside track for the #1 seed in the AFC at the end of November before Steelers DL Stephon Tuitt picked off a screen pass and broke the thumb of QB Andy Dalton during his runback. Dalton has been ruled out for this weekend’s clash
Keys to the game
1. Will the Steelers have a running game? Last January, when the Steelers were without LeVeon Bell they became a one-dimensional team. This resulted in a loss to the Ravens in the Divisional round and them being booted out of the playoffs. With DeAngelo Williams being declared out this week will the run game be able to get going against a solid Bengals front? 2. Will AJ McCarron be able to play better this time around? The Steelers had an incredible record against rookie/sophomore passers under Dick Labeau, and Keith Butler’s Defense has continued this tradition; going 2-0 this season (Johnny Manziel twice). Admittedly these games have been against a poor team; however McCarron has a better surrounding cast. Will he be able to turn round his record vs the Steelers and avoid the costly interceptions (one for a TD) that he threw in Week 14? 3. Is it going to be as chippy as it was last time? Last time the Steelers came to Cincinnati, it got physical to say the least. Star Wide Receiver Antonio Brown drew himself an unsportsmanlike conduct, Vontaze Burfict was constantly fighting after the whistle, and it really had a game that had two teams that didn’t like each other. Since then; Burfict has declared to NFL.com that he “hates Pittsburgh”. Will the emotions spill over into the game? We’ll see.
Matchup to watch
Steelers WR vs the Bengals Secondary Ben Roethlisberger and Co. have combined for 4603 yards through the air this season. This includes a 4-game stretch where Michael Vick and Landry Jones started for the team. Alongside this, Antonio Brown has just come off of a 13-catch, 187 yard and a TD performance without the back up of WR Martavis Bryant. This week the Steelers come into Paul Brown Stadium with their entire core of receivers and Tight Ends against the Bengals highly-talented secondary and it could be the matchup that decides the game!
I’ve already got the Steelers down to win this one, so I’m gonna go with: Bengals 21-33 Steelers