Almost every game remaining in the regular season involving a playoff team is important. Therefore, those games with two playoff teams are twice as important. When those teams are also division rivals and one can still win the division outright, it becomes the game of the week. Of course, that would be true except that there are at least two such games this weekend. Only one of those games involves a recent Super Bowl champion however, and takes place in what has been the toughest division in the league over the past few seasons. Of course, that game is in the AFC North, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cicninnati Bengals.
For the first time in a few years however, it is the Bengals who enter this game on top and full of confidence. Although quarterback Andy Dalton has never beaten either of the Steelers or Ravens during his short career so far, he has helped his team to an 8-6 record, one win greater than the Steelers’ 7-7 record entering Week 15. Not only do the Bengals hold the upper hand on the season, but they also enter the game in better form, having won five of their past six games. The Steelers, on the other hand, have only managed to win one of their last five games, and are coming off an overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys that highlighted some cracks in the team’s current state of mind. Not only do the Bengals get a further three days to prepare for what is the biggest game of the season so far for both sides, but they also are coming off a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles and are much healthier than their AFC North counterparts.
Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still doesn’t appear to be at full health, following an extended period on the sideline a few weeks back, while crucially cornerback Ike Taylor will miss his third game in a row with a hairline fracture. Couple that with Willie Colon landing on IR this week, Mike Adams continuing to miss time and Rashard Mendenhall returning to the team from a suspension, most likely in an inactive role, and the Steelers appear to be significantly weakened entering this week. Importantly, Cortez Allen is expected to return to start in place of Taylor, but Allen alone won’t fix the struggles of the team’s secondary in recent weeks. Allen missed last week’s loss to the Cowboys, but was present for their destruction at the hands of the San Diego Chargers.
Instead of shutting down opposition passing attacks like they did when Taylor was on the field, the Steelers will instead need to rely on creating turnovers to beat the Bengals. The Bengals have 23 turnovers this season, with 12 of those coming in the six games they have lost, and 11 in the eight that they have won. That may not seem like a big difference, but it comes out to an average of two per game in losses and 1.3 in wins, also including three one-turnover losses to the Steelers, Denver Broncos and Cowboys. Those three teams were performing at a much higher level than the Steelers are right now when they beat the Bengals. Instead of following that blueprint, the Steelers will look to replicate the Miami Dolphins or Cleveland Browns who beat the Bengals with a combined seven turnovers.
Getting to Dalton will be crucial for the Steelers, because 18 of the team’s 23 turnovers have come directly from the quarterback. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they have a -14 turnover ratio and just seven interceptions with 11 forced fumbles all season.