Steelers-Bengals AFC North Title Game Preview

It all comes down to tonight.

Tonight we’ll live and die with each play. We’ll scream and cheer and laugh and maybe cry. It’s going to be a roller coaster. I imagine it’ll feel like riding the double dip on the Jack Rabbit over and over for three and half hours.

The Steelers have remarkably clinched a playoff spot, a feat that seemed unlikely just 4-5 weeks ago.  Tonight they face the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, with the winner locking up the AFC North title and preparing to host the Ravens (stupid a Chargers couldn’t even beat the Chiefs) next weekend. The loser gets the #5 seed and a trip to Indianapolis to face the Colts in the opening weekend of the playoffs.  It goes without saying that this is a huge game.

The Steelers are in pretty good shape heading into this game.  Ike and Troy were limited in practice this week, but they haven’t exactly been missed in this defense (a sentence that’s painful to type).  Ben looks good, AB is performing at a high level (as always), and if Le’Veon Bell can do half of what he did against the Bengals in their first meeting this season, I like the Steelers chances in this one.

The Bengals are coming off Andy Dalton having the flu and AJ Green sustaining an arm injury against the Broncos on Monday night.

Even if the Bengals can stop Bell this time around, the Steelers passing game can still beat them.  AB in triple coverage?  Throw over the middle to Heath.  Heath busy blocking?  Throw deep to Martavis Bryant.  Bryant not open?  Get it to Wheaton.  The offense has finally started to live up to its potential and is clicking at just the right time.  Last week, the defense exceeded its potential, and turned in their best performance all season.  Shutting down Alex Smith may not seem like a big accomplishment, but shutting down Jamaal Charles is one.

This game comes down to one player: Ben Roethlisberger. I’ve been critical of Ben at times this season, while also being in awe of his performances against the Colts and Ravens. This game rests on his shoulders. When Ben is on, he’s as good as any QB in the league. But when he’s off, it can be tough for him to recover. If he plays well, he’s better than Andy Dalton any day. If he makes early mistakes, it could spell trouble. Despite the defense playing well next week, I still don’t trust them. The Steelers offense needs to click tonight. If it’s up to the defense trying to stop AJ Green (even if he’s not 100%), this could be a long night. If the offense can put together some long drives and keep the Bengals defense on their toes, the Steelers have a good chance of being successful tonight.

I don’t think this will be an easy win, nor do I think it will be a game that is decided early on. Both teams know what’s at stake. Despite arguments I’ve heard to the contrary, no team wants to go on the road in the playoffs. Everyone wants a home game. There’s also the pride factor. The Bengals have been the division champs a few times recently, a title that was usually reserved for the Steelers or Ravens. The Steelers haven’t won the AFC North since 2010. It’s time for them to reclaim the division.

I truly believe that this season is a successful one for the Steelers because they’ve made the playoffs. Before the season, I saw this as a 9-7 team at best. This team is still full of holes (mostly on defense), but you can’t take away what they’ve done. Yes, they’ve lost to some terrible teams. But they’ve still won enough to be in this position. Who cares who they beat, how they beat them, and how many points are scored? All that matters is winning. I don’t care if the Steelers play the ugliest game of their lives tonight, as long as they come out at least one point ahead of the Bengals.

Sunday Night Football at Heinz Field. AFC North on the line. If you can’t get up for this, you’re already dead. Go Steelers.

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