With expectations having already been greatly exceeded so far in 2015, the Bengals head into the final quarter of the regular season with the top prize of a home-field playoff advantage within their sights. In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that this group could muster such a showing after falling just short time and again in the previous four years. Whether it's stubbornness or a case of stick-to-itiveness, Marvin Lewis' patience, resolve and belief in his way of doing things has produced fruits unlike we've ever seen in these parts.
For all the cheer and good tidings the men in stripes have provided the Cincinnati area thus far, though, there is obviously still serious business at hand beginning on Sunday when the you-know-whos roll down river in an attempt to wreck our joy, steal our presents and snatch Cindy Lou Who on their way out. Yes, the Steelers are the super villains that simply will not dissipate into the realm of irrelevancy, no matter how the cards stack against them. Earlier this season, it seemed like perhaps the Teflon Don of a quarterback was vulnerable to serious injury after all when Ben Roethlisberger went down with a hurt knee and foot, but now he is right-side up and throwing deep balls like a holiday toss to his young nephews in the backyard at the family Christmas party.
Once upon a time, the counter attack to Big Ben was to keep him inside the pocket and force him to play the position in the traditional manner. Years later, it now doesn't matter how you approach him. He can dice up a shoddy secondary by calmly dropping back in the pocket and finding his speedsters zipping in every direction on the field.
In fact, the Steelers may be the most offensively powerful team that they have fielded in years. Not even the devastating blow to Leveon Bell's knee set them back very much if at all. Suddenly DeAngelo Williams looks to be in his early 20's again and fits like a glove in Mike Tomlin's group. The trio of Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, and Martavis Bryant appear to be powered by rocket fuel as they zoom past secondaries for long touchdowns seemingly every week. Not unlike Arizona, Pittsburgh has become a vertical offense that should scare the pants off of defensive coordinators everywhere.
To begin the season, the Bengals looked to have stockpiled cornerbacks on their roster in preparation for such a matchup. Fast forward 12 games, and the ranks are considerably thinner and now the mercurial Dre Kirkpatrick stands as the team's top option at corner. Leon Hall is a seasoned vet who knows the ropes when it comes to taking on the Steelers, but his speed has waned over his career after two Achilles heel injuries and was never the calling card of his game in the first place. Adam Jones, when healthy, is arguably a top-five player at his position, but this week, he was spotted wearing a cast and moving about in the locker room on a scooter.
That leaves the pass rush as Cincinnati's best hope of slowing down a team that has put together back-to-back weeks of tremendous offensive output. The Bengals have dominated along the front line against schmoey teams in the last two games and have helped limit the opposition to one touchdown in nine quarters, and will need the same kind of strong effort this week if they are to move to an astounding 11-2.
Geno Atkins looks great again, and when that's the case, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson follow suit. With an animal like Atkins gutting the interior of the offensive line on damn near every snap, quarterbacks panic and are flushed from the pocket and into the hands of the waiting defensive ends. Typically the formula falls into place like arithmetic, but against the wily Roethlisberger, teams have come to expect the unexpected.
The question then becomes if Bengals coordinator Paul Guenther decides to give the burners on the outside more cushion to not get beat deep and allow underneath throws to Heath Miller and hope the pass rush can do its things, or send additional blitzers to not give the receivers time to get all the way downfield before and force Roethlisberger to key on his escape-valve options. Knowing this team, and the way that Guenther was groomed by previous coordinator Mike Zimmer, the expectations are that the approach will be to allow underneath throws and not get beat on explosive plays under any circumstance.
Despite the lunch pail score of their last meeting, you would suspect this game to be a shootout as both offenses have demonstrated more than enough firepower to overwhelm their opposition on the scoreboard. Both teams have put up over 30 points the previous three weeks and rank among the leaders in most offensive categories. The Bengals defense did not necessarily have a strong showing the last time it met an opponent with this much scoring capability, giving up 34 points to Arizona including a super soft attempt on the game's last drive that killed their hopes for a comeback win. Jones also missed that game.
The comforting part of this weekend for Bengals fans is that this is not a make-or-break scenario at hand like is typically the case this time of year against Pittsburgh, but that doesn't mean we know how to tolerate losing to the bastards. Nothing boils the blood of the Queen City more than the smiling face on one Ben Roethlisberger, trotting away victorious. If this is the greatest Bengals team ever assembled, it will leave the Steelers in their wake, broken and listless. It will sink the yellow and gold battleship and make their postseason bid a strenuous one. This game serves as a benchmark of how elite Cincinnati really is. Belief is one thing, results are another.