CINCINNATI (AP) – Sure, the Bengals can wrap up the AFC North title with a win on Sunday, and that’s pleasing enough to the team that’s been atop the division since the opening game. But there’s something else they would savor at the end of the day.
They could make the Steelers a long shot for the playoffs, too. And that would be almost as much fun.
“I hope we knock ’em out,” Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “That’s the definition of a rivalry game.”
The Bengals (10-2) and Steelers (7-5) renew their rivalry on Sunday with a lot at stake for both of them, and a lot of hard feelings between them.
Cincinnati took control of the division by going to Pittsburgh and winning 16-10 on Nov. 1. The Steelers suffered another significant setback in that game when running back Le’Veon Bell hurt his knee while being tackled by Vontaze Burfict.
Some of the Steelers took exception to the way the demonstrative Burfict strutted after his hard tackle, not knowing that Bell had suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Pittsburgh has gotten back into playoff contention since that Nov. 1 game by getting its offense back to full speed. The Steelers have scored 30 points in four straight games for the first time in club history. They’ve also topped 450 net yards in four straight games, tying the NFL mark.
In order to maintain their slim chances of a second straight division title – and to bolster their wild-card chances – the Steelers must prevent a series sweep.
“It’s one of the best (teams), if not the best, in the NFL,” said Roethlisberger, who has thrown for more than 300 yards in four straight games. “So we know we’re the underdogs and it’s a big challenge for us.”
A challenge with a little extra edge and a lot on the line.
“I know what’s at stake, they know what’s at stake,” Kirkpatrick said. “They don’t like us, we don’t like them, point-blank.”
Some things to watch on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
A.J.’S DAY: A.J. Green has enjoyed some big games against the Steelers lately, including an 11-catch performance for 118 yards and the winning touchdown in Pittsburgh. Green has averaged 9.8 catches and 129.3 yards receiving in his last four games against the Steelers. The Steelers rank 29th in the league in pass defense, so how they handle Green this time around will provide one of the main themes.
RUN THE BALL: The Bengals managed only 78 yards on 23 carries in Pittsburgh. Jeremy Hill had 60 yards on 15 carries, part of his season-long sophomore slump. He’s shown signs of finally emerging, running for 86 and 98 yards – his highest totals of the season – in his last two games. He also seems to have some of his confidence back.
“He’s got to keep that going,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “I don’t know what exactly it was the last two weeks, but we’ve got to keep getting it out of him because he’s a really good player and he’s a big part of this offense.”
HAPPY RETURNS: The Steelers are done experimenting in their return game. Antonio Brown will be back to handle punts, with Markus Wheaton working kickoffs against Cincinnati. Pittsburgh demoted Jacoby Jones after the former Pro Bowler fumbled twice last week in a win over the Colts. Brown took over in the second half for Jones and responded with a 71-yard touchdown. Brown has five career returns (four punts, one kick) for a score, tied with Antwaan Randle-El for the franchise record.
DECEMBER PUSH: Pittsburgh has won eight straight games in December and is 27-12 in regular-season games played Dec. 1 or later since coach Mike Tomlin took over in 2007. “You’ve got to wire in this time of year,” Roethlisberger said. “You’ve always got to be focused and ready to go, but this time of year you’re trying to make a playoff run, you’re trying to play your best football, and I guess that’s why we try and do our best now.”
OLD FAITHFUL: Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison is having one heck of a “retirement.” The 38-year-old spent 2013 in Cincinnati and retired for 18 days in 2014 before being coaxed back onto the field by the Steelers. He has 10 1-2 sacks in 22 games since his return, including three in the fourth quarter last week against Indianapolis, becoming only the third Pittsburgh player ever to have three sacks in one quarter.