The Bengals can slide into the No. 2 seed: Cincinnati can move into the second seed with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night, thanks to the Miami Dolphins pulling off an improbable (though not entirely surprising) win over the New England Patriots. Cincinnati now controls their own destiny for the No. 2 seed, but that's just another way of saying that they have to win out. With a win Sunday night, the Bengals can prove their character to win big games in prime time (similar to a postseason game).
With a win this weekend, they can also challenge Denver for the No. 1 seed, but the Bengals still need the Broncos to lose before those discussions take place.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals on prime time: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has something to prove on Sunday Night. Since joining the Cincinnati Bengals, Dalton has completed 147 of 262 passes (56.1 percent) for 1,455 yards with three touchdowns and nine interceptions on games played in prime time (including the Bengals losses in the playoffs).
As the starting quarterback, the Bengals are 2-5 during those games. Specifically against the Steelers in prime time, Dalton has completed 39 of 73 passes for 385 yards with two scores and a pick with a .500 record (1-1). Dalton gets most of his criticism during games like this when he struggles. He needs a big one tonight.
Dre Kirkpatrick likely gets his first start: The team hasn't released the starting lineup yet, but the general consensus is that second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick will get his first career start, opposite of Adam Jones. He's replacing Terence Newman, who suffered an MCL sprain in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts and could be out until the postseason.
In the last three games, Kirkpatrick has allowed a 74-yard touchdown (Browns) and nine of 13 passes to be completed for 136 yards receiving -- including seven of eight receptions against the Colts. Kirkpatrick did have a pick (aka, ripped it out of Antonio Gates' hands) against Rivers in week 13. But he has a lot to prove.
Slow down, and bring down, Ben Roethlisberger: Steelers quarterback Ben Roehtlisberger has been playing well recently, scoring 11 touchdowns in the last four games without throwing an interception. One can look at the Steelers protection scheme, solidifying the pocket by allowing only four sacks during that stretch. In the ten games before that, Roethlisberger was dropped 30 times and only scored 13 touchdowns.
Cincinnati's pass rush has slowed in terms of their sack production. Despite pressuring Andrew Luck with some consistency, they couldn't bring him down. Similarly, decent pressure led to only two sacks on Philip Rivers two weeks ago. However, the Bengals did have a four-game stretch before San Diego where they generated 16 quarterback sacks.
Keep the running game alive: Despite the Bengals passing a lot during the Monday Night game between the Bengals and Steelers earlier this year, Cincinnati pieced together a controlled second half with a quality running game that dominated time of possession. They outscored the Steelers 10-0 in the second half and eventually won the game 20-10.
Cincinnati's rushing offense has come alive, as of late -- largely due to the re-configuration of the offensive line with Andrew Whitworth sliding to left guard and Anthony Collins at left tackle. In the last two games, the Bengals have generated 319 yards rushing and scored four rushing touchdowns -- including three last week against the Indianapolis Colts.
A series of season sweeps: Save for last year, this series has been one about series sweeps. Dating back to 2007, whomever won the first game of the series, swept it outright. In '07, '08, '10 and '11, the Steelers swept the Bengals. In '09, it was the Bengals. Cincinnati won the first game of the series this year in week two.