It's here, folks. It's time for that inevitable game that we've all been anticipating for the last 10 years. That's right - it's time for the Bengals to host the Steelers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Since coming to the helm in 2003 in the midst of a 10 year (at the time) playoff drought, Marvin Lewis has led the Bengals to the postseason a total of six times (2005, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014). They lost all six of those games. but now they're back for a seventh time and looking to beat the team that handed them their first loss back in 2005.
If there was a single game from the beginning of the regular season to now that the Bengals and their fans want to win, it's this one. Winning would mean everything. And on that note, losing would just mean more of the same old same old. As far as what it would mean to next week, it would mean the Bengals would travel to Foxborough to face off against the New England Patriots for a divisional round matchup that would be likely play out much closer than many analysts would think. If the Steelers win, they will go to Denver to face a team they already beat in the regular season, though with Brock Osweiler under center; Peyton Manning will start in the Divisional Round.
Last week: 24-16 win vs Baltimore Ravens
The Bengals controlled everything they could last week. Unfortunately, the San Diego Chargers couldn't pull off the improbable upset over the Denver Broncos to give the Bengals the AFC's No. 2 seed. But, the Bengals' win over the Ravens helped them to equal their franchise best 12-4 regular season record, which also equaled the top records in the AFC from the Patriots and Broncos. Unfortunately, a head-to-head loss to the Broncos meant that the Broncos and Patriots both controlled tiebreakers over the Bengals. But, beating the division rival Ravens last week built confidence and momentum heading into the first round of the playoffs.
It's been an incredible season for the Bengals. Yes, they only finished 4-4 after an 8-0 start, but they performed well enough for Geno Atkins and A.J. Green to make PFF's All Pro team, Atkins and Whitworth to make the AP's All Pro first team, Reggie Nelson to make the AP All Pro second team, and well enough for Green, Atkins, Whitworth, Nelson, and Tyler Eifert to all making it to the Pro Bowl. The Bengals also broke multiple team records, which they're looking to add to on Saturday.
Gotta add bullet point to it Sat... https://t.co/zk9bkmTVxd— Carlos Dunlap (@Carlos_Dunlap) January 7, 2016
Last week: 28-12 win vs Cleveland Browns
Despite losing to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 and appearing to have ended their chances at making the playoffs, the Steelers got some help from the Buffalo Bills as they upset the New York Jets, allowing the Steelers to easily defeat the Cleveland Browns and secure the AFC's final seed. It's been a bumpy ride for the Steelers and their fans this season as they lost Le'Veon Bell to a torn ACL against the Bengals in Week 8, as well as losing all three of the quarterbacks on their roster to injury at various points in the season, although Ben Roethlisberger is back now and leading a very dangerous offensive attack.
It's generally been a season of weathering turmoil. On top of the injuries, players like first round pick Bud Dupree have not lived up to their expectations this season. Last week, Dupree joined Chris Boswell as the Steelers' two representatives on PFF's list of worst players of the week. However, like they have all season, the Steelers managed to get a convincing win despite the setbacks that they were facing.
Keys to the Game
If there's one thing to take note of among the Bengals' defense lately, it's Vontaze Burfict's excellent run of form. Last week, in particular, he put up two QB hits, a pass defensed, 11 tackles, and two interceptions. He's only been playing since Week 8, but PFF notes that he has "been on a fairly steady incline toward his 2013 form since then. Only Jamie Collins has earned a better grade than Burfict of all 4-3 OLBs since he returned.
Unfortunately, he has still had a problem with committing a large number of poorly-timed penalties, but his recent play has sparked life into an otherwise lifeless linebacker corps. But, his performance reached it's peak last week as he found his way on to PFF's best players of the week list, and he's only expected to improve in the playoffs. This week, he's going to be relied upon to keep Heath Miller in check, who hasn't been having his best season. As a whole, the Bengals linebackers have never looked great playing against Miller. But, with Emmanuel Lamur (who has consistently been the lowest-graded linebacker in coverage) out and Burfict on the rise, playing some of his best pass coverage of his career last week, this could be the game that Heath Miller turns in a poor performance against the Bengals.
Lock Down Brown
What a season by Antonio Brown this year. Brown's overall grade this season, who has turned in the second highest graded season by a Wide Receiver since Pro Football Focus began grading players in 2007. The highest still remains Brandon Marshall's 2013 season with the Chicago Bears. Brown finished as PFF's highest graded receiver in both of the past two seasons, meaning he is the No. 1 target for the Bengals to shut down this week.
With Le'Veon Bell on injured reserve and DeAngelo Williams ruled out after suffering an ankle sprain last week against the Browns, it would be surprising to see the Steelers put together any significant rushing attack behind their third option, Jordan Todman. If he should go down as well, it will be up to Fitzgerald Toussaint to carry the rock for Pittsburgh, who has only carried the ball 42 times in a Steelers uniform and 54 times in his NFL career. The Bengals should definitely not ignore the Steelers' running game this week, especially with David DeCastro (+18.5) having a good season blocking for the run, but locking down Antonio Brown will give the Bengals a significant chance to hold the Steelers' offense in check and come out with a win.
Let McCarron Air it Out
Much has been made about the potential for AJ McCarron to lead the Bengals to a playoff victory as the backup when the Bengals struggled to win a game in the playoffs with their starter, Andy Dalton, for four years. But, the Steelers' secondary might be the perfect sacrificial lamb to get him really going and able to lead the Bengals to the playoff victory that an entire generation of Bengals fans has never experienced. The Steelers' cumulative grade in pass coverage (-26.9) makes them the 12th lowest graded team in the NFL and one of the worst among of playoff teams. Antwon Blake has been particularly bad (-18.8), only beating Saints' DB Brandon Browner.
It won't be all easy for McCarron, though. Cameron Heyward has had an excellent season so far, grading sixth highest among 3-4 DEs (+29.5). For the Bengals, it's been a spotty season at offensive line, but the normally rock-solid Andrew Whitworth has recorded two of his three negatively graded games this year against the Steelers (-0.7; -0.6). McCarron has had a poor quarterback rating against pressure this year (57.6), so the Bengals will need to give him time to work in the pocket if they want to develop an effective passing game.