The Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) last won the AFC North in 2009, and strangely enough that was the last year they swept the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8) in the regular season. On Sunday night, the Bengals can further plant their feet in the division foot holes with a victory at Heinz Field.
The Bengals are currently the No. 3 seed with three weeks left to the season, just one game back of No. 2 New England. Cincinnati made the postseason in the last two years, but the last time the Bengals earned a playoff bye week was back in 1988’s run to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are two games back of the AFC’s last wild card spot, and will need to win out and plenty of teams to falter in the last three weeks for an outside chance at the postseason.
After showing signs of life with three straight wins, the Steelers were tripped up by consecutive losses to Baltimore and Miami, despite outgaining both teams in total yards and on the third down.
That’s without mentioning head coach Mike Tomlin’s $100,000 fine and the certain loss of a pick in next spring’s draft after he impeded Baltimore receiver Jacoby Jones on what could have been a long reception for a touchdown.
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The Bengals are riding a three-game win streak, outscoring opponents 100-58, including last week’s huge 42-28 smashing of Indianapolis. Cincinnati smashed the Colts for 155 rushing yards thanks to top production from Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
The tandem is averaging a combined 134 yards rushing in the last three games, while quarterback Andy Dalton’s totaled seven passing touchdowns to three interceptions. Wide out A.J. Green has slowed down in the last three games, but has still recorded 13 catches for 162 yards and two scores, after five straight games with a minimum of 100 yards receiving.
Ben Roethlisberger has had the added benefit of better protection from his offensive line in the last five games. He’s been sacked five times, compared to 35 takedowns in the first eight games of the season. As a result he’s tossed 12 touchdowns compared to one interception, and Roethlisberger has jumped up the rankings as the NFL’s ninth-ranked passer.
Receiver Antonio Brown has also surpassed his career-highs with 90 receptions for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns. But the Steelers haven’t been able to generate any run game to complement Brown and Roethlisberger, ranking 31st in the league with 77.4 rushing yards per game.
The Pittsburgh defense has also struggled against the run, allowing 120.2 rushing yards per game. Injuries to defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Brett Kiesel, along with starting nose tackled Steve McLendon, could only aggravate the issue. McClendon could miss his third straight game with a bad ankle.
The Bengals held Green-Ellis and top starting corner Terence Newman out of Wednesday’s practice, while leading tackler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict was limited with a thigh injury.
Betting Odds: Cincinnati favored by 3 points
Over/Under: 41 points
Time: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Pittsburgh 23