Steelers, Bengals Both Trying To Stay Alive In AFC North
Pittsburgh (8-3) Hosts Cincinnati (7-4) In NFL Week 13
PITTSBURGH -- Meaningful games in December are nothing new in Pittsburgh, where playoff pushes are an annual event. Not so much in Cincinnati, where the conversation usually turns to the NFL draft after Thanksgiving.
It's why normally reserved Bengals coach Marvin Lewis ditched the usual "one game at a time" mantra heading into Sunday's rematch with the Steelers, who held off Cincinnati 24-17 on the road three weeks ago.
The surprising Bengals (7-4) trail Baltimore and Pittsburgh (8-3) by a game in the AFC North with five weeks to go. A loss would effectively end Cincinnati's bid for an unlikely division title. The way Lewis figures, no need to downplay the stakes.
"This is a big football game for us, no doubt about it," he said. "If we want to have an opportunity to win the AFC North, this is an important game for us. We can't fall another game behind at this point."
Though Pittsburgh is tied with the Ravens, Baltimore holds the tiebreaker after sweeping the season series. Any misstep puts the Steelers' hopes of a second straight division title and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in serious jeopardy, and they know it.
"We felt like coming out of the bye we needed to go 6-0," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "We got one down, we still got five to go."
The team that beat the New England Patriots with relative ease the day before Halloween is the same one that struggled to put away reeling Kansas City 13-9 last week.
"It wasn't our best, but guys understand what time of year it is," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I'd rather stand here and talk about an ugly win than a pretty loss."
So would the Bengals, though their spirited play against the defending AFC champions two weeks ago even in defeat signaled their hot start was no fluke. Cincinnati rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game at 17 before wilting in the final minutes.
The game served as a litmus test for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's growth, one he passed flawlessly for three quarters before a pair of late interceptions ended Cincinnati's five-game winning streak.
"I don't know how the talk is, but he's rookie of the year," Roethlisberger said. "I think he's that good of a quarterback."
Dalton believes the Bengals can be a playoff team now, not next year. For proof he points to the way his team responded after getting in an early hole against the Steelers.
"We were in the game the whole time," said Dalton, whose 16 touchdown passes is a club record for a rookie. "We got down quick but that didn't faze us. We were focused on the next play and we were able to come back in the game. We fell a little short. It's good to get to play them again."
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley is expected to play after missing the last three games with a left hamstring injury. Safety Troy Polamalu will also play after sitting out most of the Kansas City game with concussion-like symptoms.
The Bengals aren't nearly as healthy. The secondary looked out of sorts at times in last week's 23-20 escape over Cleveland without safety Leon Hall, out for the season with a torn Achilles.
"I think Leon was playing at a very high level and obviously it hurts when you lose a guy like that so I think they have to be prepared a little bit," Roethlisberger said. "But I feel like they've put Adam (Jones) in there and say 'Here it is.' "
The Bengals believe it can happen. They're 3-3 over their last six trips to Pittsburgh, playing the Steelers tough regardless of what type of season the franchise is enduring.
"Most people outside of this building, if you'd have told them we'd have a chance the last five games of the season to dictate our destiny, I think people would have laughed at us," Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "But we're there. It's an exciting opportunity, and now we have to make the best of it. It's all in front of us.
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