For weeks we've been promoting the whole "beat Pittsburgh" in many postseason scenarios that inks the Cincinnati Bengals into the 2012 NFL playoffs. On paper it looks lovely; shifting focus from a 3-5 Bengals squad that lost four-straight to probable scenarios with couch phrases as easy as "just beat Pittsburgh".
Andy Dalton. A.J. Green. Geno Atkins. Carlos Dunlap. Jermaine Gresham.
These are Bengals superstars with multiple years in the league that's never experienced a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact you can argue any player playing their third season hasn't felt the joy of conquering what often seems like a psychological titan against one of the divisions toughest opponents for Cincinnati in recent history. Even Andre Smith, who didn't play the Steelers during his rookie year when the Bengals swept Pittsburgh, can't claim the milestone.
Leading up Cincinnati's Week Seven game against the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this year, Andy Dalton acknowledged that for the Bengals to take that next step, they must beat intra-divisional rivals like the Steelers and Ravens.
"For us to get to where we want to be, we've got to beat teams like that," said Dalton.
Cincinnati opened with a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter during Sunday Night Football earlier this year, only to spot the Steelers 11 points to tie the game by half time. Pittsburgh outscored the Bengals 10-3 in the second half, featuring the third quarter as their "really bad quarter" of the game; Andy Dalton completed only two of seven passes compared to Ben Roethlisberger going 8/9 for 94 yards passing.
Since sweeping Pittsburgh during Cincinnati's 2009 AFC North division championship season, the Bengals haven't beaten the Steelers since, losing five straight.
Predictably the Bengals postseason chances comes down to a Week 16 meeting against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz field, where Cincinnati is surprisingly 4-5 in nine games played during the Marvin Lewis era -- including the playoffs, the Bengals are 1-10 at home against the Steelers.
And if this version of the Bengals, the third installment by head coach Marvin Lewis, is to surpass the previous iterations, it must beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. Be sloppy, be Terminator-like efficient, just be the victor in a game that decides the season. Not only have we seen the developing persona of a team that we've often praised for character, intangibles and leadership, we'll see their mental toughness playing a game in a hostile environment when everything is on the line.
Yet it won't be the offense.
Cincinnati currently sports the league's No. 6 ranked defense. A defense that's generated a +8 turnover differential over the last six games (Bengals won five), only allowed 45.6 yards rushing per game over the last three and a 26.2 percent third down conversion ratio combined during the last five wins. Though ironically the Bengals, currently the league's top defense sacking the quarterback, could ultimately become a liability with Roethlisberger's history of hurting Cincinnati while scrambling behind the line of scrimmage, the secondary is playing equally well.
The Bengals have a massive task ahead this weekend, not so much worrying about a 7-7 Pittsburgh Steelers team, rather overcoming a demon that's big-brothered Cincinnati for so long. The Bengals can either step up and achieve a milestone most of these players have never experience, securing another postseason berth in consecutive seasons for the first time in 30 years. Or do what every Bengals team has done throughout most of its history.
In an era where the Bengals are wiping out negative trends -- losing streak to Buffalo, Jaguars in Jacksonville, Seahawks in Seattle -- we can't think of one better than Andy Dalton and this young crew getting their first win against the Steelers.