Tying their franchise record for regular season wins, securing an AFC North title for the second time in three seasons, and ranking seventh in scoring and second in points allowed, the Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) and head coach Marvin Lewis enjoyed one of their best years but all that could be for nothing unless they can drop the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) for the second time this season in Saturday’s AFC wild-card matchup at Paul Brown Stadium.
As of now, the Bengals are presently unsure if they will have starting quarterback Andy Dalton back to face the Steelers as they try to snap a six-game, 25-year playoff losing streak. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Dalton had the cast protecting his fractured right thumb on Monday, however the Bengals remain unsure if he can start against Pittsburgh.
Dalton last started in Cincinnati’s 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 14, completing three of five passes for 59 yards and one interception before suffering the injury.
A.J. McCarron has stepped in to toss touchdowns and an equal number of interceptions against the Steelers but ever since has gone 2-1 to help the Bengals attain the AFC’s No. 3 seed, but there’s little question a healthy Dalton serves as the Bengals best chance of advancing against.
Armed with receiver A.J. Green and a dynamic tandem of running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, with tight end Tyler Eifert punishing the defenses down the middle of the field, Dalton was in the midst of one of his best seasons with a career-high 66.1 complete percentage and 106.2 passer rating with 25 touchdown passes to seven interceptions.
Dalton appeared ready to snap his 0-4 playoff record, especially after guiding Cincinnati to a 16-10 comeback victory at Pittsburgh in Week 8, capped by Dalton’s nine-yard touchdown strike to A.J. Green and kicker Mike Nugent’s 44-yard field goal with 1:51 left. It also seemed to signal Lewis was primed to earn his first postseason victory, whiffing on his first six attempts since joining the Bengals in 2003.
But the Bengals are stand as one of three home underdogs against a Steelers squad that’s held the label of “the team no one wants to face” after dealing with major and costly injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell.
Roethlisberger missed four games due to a sprained knee and a concussion, but still managed to lead the Steelers to the postseason for the second straight year and eighth time overall with 3,938 passing yards and 21 touchdowns to 16 picks and receiver Antonio providing 136 receptions for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The duo was prolific but their work was made all the more possible by veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who stepped up when Bell went down for 907 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns at a 4.5-yard per carry clip.
But Williams status is murky after he suffered a sprained ankle in the regular season finale win over Cleveland. The 32-year-old former Panther was carted off the field, but an MRI reportedly revealed no structural damage, though according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a Steelers source said there’s an “outside chance” Williams will play.
Should Williams sit out, fourth-year back Jordan Todman is next up on the depth chart, but second-year back Fitzgerald Toussaint ranked fourth on the team with 42 rushing yards during the regular season.
The matchup marks just the second time these two rivals have met in the postseason. Pittsburgh took the only other meeting in 2005 behind three touchdown passes from Roethlisberger in a 31-17 road win, on their way to a Super Bowl title.
Betting Odds: Pittsburgh -2.5
Over/Under: 46.5 points
Prediction: Pittsburgh over Cincinnati, 24-17