You kind of wanted this, but you didn't.
Every so often, the NFL provides its huge fan base with a game so entertaining, it captures the attention of the sports-watching nation. The entertainment supplied by a given matchup doesn't solely reside in the play on the field, but storylines off of it that dramatizes the subsequent four hours of football. Who knew that two mid-market cities in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, would be able to supply the football-hungry masses such a soap opera?
If you're a fan of either franchise and don't know about some of the examples that have caused the bad blood, I don't really have the time to go over all of it. If you want a summary, it goes something like this:
- In 2005, the Bengals won the division, their first crown in over 15 years, and desecrated "The Terrible Towel" at Heinz Field.
- The teams faced-off a few weeks later and a more-than-questionable tackle attempt tore up the knee of Cincinnati's franchise quarterback. Pittsburgh subsequently celebrated by mocking a Bengals tradition.
- Other questionable hits by Steelers players on a variety of Bengals have ended their season and Pittsburgh's dominance over Cincinnati in the series breeds more animosity.
- A couple more recent wins by the Bengals at Heinz Field and subsequent injuring of the Steelers' star running back in consecutive years fuels more contempt.
- Another freak injury to a Bengals quarterback in the matchup and another Wild Card face-off a decade after the Carson Palmer injury and you're caught up.
Obviously, that doesn't do all of the invested emotions from players and the respective fan bases justice, but it gets you up to speed. The stakes are once again at their highest when Cincinnati hosts Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night.
There are a few issues from both teams--both familiar and unfamiliar. Every NFL squad experiences injuries throughout any given year, but few have to rely on backups at their most crucial positions on the roster. Andy Dalton, who fractured a thumb four weeks ago against the Steelers, has his cast off, but will not play on Saturday night. It's up to former University of Alabama star quarterback, AKA Dalton's NFL backup, AJ McCarron.
In the four games relieving Dalton, McCarron is 2-2 (one loss as an actual starter), with six passing touchdowns against two interceptions. He hasn't thrown the ball to the opposing team since the Steelers game four weeks ago, and has just one lost fumble since taking over the reigns. Even so, the dry spells the offense has experienced under his watch and his beating of teams with only a combined nine wins (Baltimore and San Francisco) calls his ability to beat the mighty Steelers in the playoffs into question.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, a change from the old ground-and-pound days to an air-it-out philosophy has obviously taken place. That isn't to say the Steelers can't run the ball anymore, as they used Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams all season long. Bell was injured, but Williams filled in admirably, as both combined for 1,463 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015. But, Ben Roethlisberger won't have either at his disposal today, as he'll need to rely on the unproven Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman as his backs.
Complicating matters for both teams is the weather. It's supposed to be gloomy and rainy at Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night, making the air attacks from both teams seem like an uphill climb. Though Roethlisberger has won more than the lion's share of games against the Bengals, he's 4-2 in the last six matchups with seven interceptions over the span. The man responsible for most of Roethlisberger's turnovers when facing Cincinnati is safety Reggie Nelson, who has six interceptions against him since joining the Bengals in 2010. It's just one facet to keep in mind as the precipitation falls in The Queen City this weekend.
Nelson is on high alert this week, as he'll be tasked with tag-teaming coverage against the exciting receiver duo of Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, as well as keeping a watchful on on tight end Heath Miller. With the little respect the Bengals will have against the Steeler rushing attack, Big Ben will be putting Nelson to work once again by distributing the ball to his exciting receiving options.
Obviously, Andy Dalton hasn't played well in the previous four postseason tries, but the rest of the team hasn't supported him in the way they should, either. The game plans have been suspect as well in the Lewis era, with the Bengals never scoring more than 13 points in a playoff game with Dalton under center and failing to score more than 17 points during each Marvin Lewis era playoff game.
The Bengals will need to score a decent amount of points to emerge victorious on Saturday, but it's unclear how many. While it might be an overtly obvious statement, I'm more pointing to the Bengals' defense and their penchant for forcing opposing offenses to settle for field goals this year. Since Vontaze Burfict's return to the linebacker position in Week 8, the Bengals defense is allowing just 15.7 points per game.
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We answer the burning questions on the minds of Bengals fans as they approach a Wild Card clash against the Steelers. Send us your questions to be answered in this weekly feature!
We can talk stats, numbers and analytics all we want, but it's still the emotion that rules the storyline Saturday night. Those hoping to see Dalton ride in on a majestic steed and make the Steelers pay for a decade worth of heartbreak, are in for giant disappointment, no matter how much poetic justice it would bring. For the Bengals, it's going to take a total team effort and near-perfect execution to stamp a trip to Foxboro next weekend.
The lingering issue is that the phrases "near-perfect execution", "the Cincinnati Bengals" and "playoffs" don't make sense when placed in the same sentence. Some fans believe in "the prime time curse", while others think it's rubbish, but Marvin Lewis has to begin to erase the stigma of not being able to win games on the biggest stages. He's now in his seventh postseason appearance with his third starting quarterback in this most recent go-round. Who else and what else will it take to get that win in January?
A terribly overused cliche in sports is one that points to the team "who wants it more". While the notion would normally elicit eye rolls, it seems to ring incredibly true in this Wild Card face-off with so much emotion engrained in the game and so much familiarity between the two teams.
Earlier, I mentioned the idea of the Bengals playing a near-perfect game. While I still believe it to be true, the ability to shrug off a mistake that might occur is a must for a team that often lets these instances snowball on them in these big games. While limiting the bonehead gaffes that have plagued Cincinnati in their previous six postseason ventures is critical against the bully-on-the-block Steelers, the ability to let things roll off their shoulders is equally as critical.
And that's where we might be getting to the crux of the entire approach from the Bengals Saturday night. In so many previous matchups over the years, this "hack" writer (in the words of some Steelers fans who have frequented Cincy Jungle this week) I've preached that the Bengals need to "out-physical" Pittsburgh and beat the bullies at their own style of play. My narrative has finally changed this time around.
If I'm in the Bengals locker room this week, I'm preaching one message: have some fun. In the majority of Lewis' six postseason berths, Cincinnati has been a favorite in the games. Now, employing a backup quarterback and falling into the national media's trap of revisionist history, the Bengals are an underdog at home. If I'm a coach or player on the squad, the message should be relax and embrace the image.
In so many other of the Bengals' postseason games, they have played tight and the moment seemed way to big for the small handful of roster incarnations Lewis threw onto the field. Perhaps the preparation this week should be to not overthink things, relax and realize there isn't much else to lose at this point. Sure, another postseason game against their most bitter rival is at stake, but Cincinnati is already known as prime time "chokers", and with an 0-6 postseason already to Lewis' name, how much more criticism can they really take? Only way to go is up, right?
Everything points to the Steelers continuing their decorated past: history in the rivalry, a potent offense, and Cincinnati's lack of success in the biggest games. It's why Las Vegas has them as two and a half point favorites this weekend. However, something tells me fate might finally be on the Bengals' side. It might be evident by Bengals' players tones on social media.
Regardless of who wins, I expect this to be a close game that could be characterized as "beautifully ugly". It wouldn't surprise me if the outcome came down to who ends up having the ball last, and I foresee a team kicking a late field goal to move on for a clash in the Divisional Round next weekend.
Steelers 16, Bengals 17
AC -- Hacking my way through the haters.