The Cincinnati Bengals (10-2) can clinch their second AFC North crown in the last three seasons and one of the conference’s top four playoff seeds with one more victory, but face the rival and on-fire Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) squad Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.
Not since 2009 have the Bengals swept the Steelers in the regular season, and Cincinnati has largely erased its mid-season two-game slide with two blowout victories over St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns in the last two weeks.
The wins place Cincinnati atop the AFC with four games left to play, and based off their 16-10 victory over Pittsburgh in Week 8, it will enter the home matchup as a three-point favorite.
But the Bengals may have to prepare for and build up a few contingency plans for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with three top defensive backs sitting out Wednesday’s practice. Cornerbacks Adam Jones (foot) and Dre Kirkpatrick (knee), and safety George Iloka (groin) were all sidelined during practice, potentially leaving the Bengals vulnerable against a Steelers offense that has scored 30 or more points in their last four games.
With Roethlisberger seemingly healthy after battling knee and foot injuries this season, as well as a concussion, the Steelers have climbed back into both the division and AFC wild card races with victories in three of their last four contests.
However, with Cincinnati a perfect 4-0 in the division and Pittsburgh just 1-2, the Steelers best chances in returning to the postseason rest in fending off the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and Houston Texans for a wild-card berth.
The Steelers recent surge is attributable both to Roethlisberger’s health and the face that Pittsburgh’s offense has dealt rather well with the loss of top running back Le’Veon Bell. The 33-year-old Roethlisberger’s fired off 10 of his 15 touchdown passes for the season in the last four games, and veteran DeAngelo Williams added two 100-plus yard games in the same span.
Pittsburgh does, however, have a few injuries to fret over. Cornerback William Gay (concussion, coach’s decision), tight ends Heath Miller (rib) and Matt Spaeth (knee), and receiver Sammie Coates (illness) all did not participate in Wednesday’s practice, while veteran linebacker James Harrison was also kept out but not due to injury, according to the team’s official site.
Betting Odds: Cincinnati -3
Over/Under: 49.5 points
Prediction: Pittsburgh over Cincinnati, 24-20