On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals will square off in an all-important Week 14 matchup. For these AFC North rivals, it is the first of two contests between the pair, with the rematch coming on the final day of the regular season at Heinz Field. This time around, the venue is Paul Brown Stadium with Who Dey Nation ready to celebrate a key victory over the hated Steelers.
Cincinnati (8-3-1) enters with a 1.5-game lead in the AFC North over the Steelers (7-5), Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. The Bengals have won three in a row, all on the road, and find themselves as the AFC’s third seed. However, Cincinnati still needs to prove it can win a big game against a good opponent.
Andy Dalton must play better than he has this season to beat Pittsburgh. Dalton has thrown 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, an atrocious ratio for a quarterback who signed an $116 million contract this offseason. The Steelers only rank 16th against the pass but are 10th against the run. The Steelers should be able to limit Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill on the ground, forcing Dalton to make some third-down throws to A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu. Dalton won’t be throwing against elite corners in William Gay and Cortez Allen, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will aim to confuse him with exotic zone-blitzes.
Dalton has not thrown for 300 yards in a game since tying the Carolina Panthers back in Week 6. Against Pittsburgh, he will need to read the blitz and stand tall in the pocket, finding the open receiver who can create yards after the catch. Most importantly, Dalton has to avoid making the big mistakes like he did last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he tossed three interceptions.
On the other side, the lynchpin is Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, rushing for 1,046 yards and catching 65 passes for 643 yards. Over the past two weeks, Bell has run for 299 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Bengals have struggled mightily stopping the run, checking in 25th with 125 yards/game surrendered. However, Cincinnati has really tightened up in that department during its recent winning streak, giving up just 71 yards/game. The last time the Bengals allowed an 100-yard rusher was against Carolina when Cam Newton ran wild for 107 yards and a score.
For Pittsburgh, this game is not a must-win for the playoffs but it’s close. The Steelers could lose and still go 10-6, but face a daunting schedule with a trip to Atlanta followed by home games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Bengals. To win the division, Pittsburgh likely has to sweep Cincinnati and then win at least one of its other two games.
The AFC North race begins in earnest on Sunday in Cincinnati. It should be a wild ride.