The Cincinnati Bengals (8-3-1) received some breathing room in the AFC North division race on Sunday after escaping with a 14-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Marvin Lewis’s squad certainly doesn’t have a playoff berth wrapped up. On Sunday, they host the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) in a Week 14 matchup with heavy postseason implications.
Due to a tie with the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 12, the Bengals oddly have a 1.5 game advantage on the rest of the division. The Bengals control their own destiny with three of their next four games against AFC North opponents. The rest of the division has a 7-5 record.
The Bengals begin Week 14 as three-point favorites. Cincinnati has a 4-1-1 record at Paul Brown Stadium, while the Steelers are 3-3 on the road.
Turning around the defense has been key for the Bengals. After the first nine games, the Bengals were 30th in total defense, 31st in rushing defense, and 20th in passing defense. But defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has seen recent strides, as the Bengals are now 21st in total yards. The unit hasn’t allowed more than 13 points in each of the last three games, helping them to 10th in the league in points allowed (20.8). Much of the credit may be due to their ability to stop opponents in key situations, with the league’s seventh best third-down conversion rate (37.3 percent).
Cincinnati could use a stronger performance from Andy Dalton. Several teammates said they saw Dalton vomit multiple times before the game against Carolina due to flu-like symptoms. Dalton would perform poorly in the first half, throwing an interception on the first play of the game. In 2013, Dalton combined to throw three touchdown passes and no interceptions in two games against Pittsburgh. He will be facing a current Pittsburgh defense that has just eight interceptions and 21 sacks all season.
Dalton’s individual success has been synonymous with the team's success. The quarterback has a 91.1 passer rating and 241.4 yards per game in Cincinnati’s wins and ties, compared to a 51.9 passer rating and 138.7 yards per game in three losses.
The Steelers remain very much in the thick of the division hunt, despite poor efforts on the road against AFC North opponents, losing by a combined score of 57-16 to the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. On Sunday, the Steelers trailed at home to the New Orleans Saints, 35-16, before scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns along with two successful two-point conversions to finish with a more respectable final score, 35-32.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has struggled recently, throwing five total interceptions in three games. His throwing hand was bothered in the first quarter against the Saints after banging it against linebacker Curtis Lofton.
“I am sure every quarterback has that happen every game,” Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “Does it hurt? Yeah. Did it affect my throwing? No.”
Overall, the veteran has put up big numbers in 2014. Roethlisberger ranks in the top 6 among quarterbacks in passer rating, yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. He’s helped the Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, and Baltimore Ravens. None of those teams have a losing record, and Roethlisberger combined to throw 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions in those victories.
In recent games, Le’Veon Bell has been the Steelers’ top offensive weapon. The second-year running back has rushed for 299 yards over the past two games at 5.5 yards per carry. He’s been very dangerous in the passing game, catching eight passes for 159 yards against the Saints, and grabbing at least five receptions on nine different occasions.
The Steelers will be facing a Bengals squad that has been hot in recent weeks, winning five of their last six games, and three straight road games. Sunday marks the Bengals’ first home game since Nov. 6, and Cincinnati has just one regular-season home loss since the start of last season.
Pittsburgh will host Cincinnati in the final game of the season. A loss for the Steelers on Sunday means they would need two straight wins and two consecutive losses by the Bengals, in order to have a chance of finishing ahead of their divisional rivals.
The over/under for Sunday’s game is 47 points. The Bengals are 6-5 -1 against the spread, and have covered five of the last six betting lines in Cincinnati against AFC North opponents. The Steelers are 5-7 against the spread in 2014.
Prediction: Cincinnati over Pittsburgh, 24-17
An IBTimes staff reporter contributed to this report.