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Steelers at Bengals: Who’s the boss?

The first contest of 2016 between the Bengals and Steelers was more tame than the Wild Card game in January, but will the second go-round be more emotionally explosive?

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When you ask a Steelers fan about the current state of the rivalry with the Bengals, they often brush off the notion of there being a true rivalry because of the lopsided record in Pittsburgh’s favor during the Marvin Lewis era. However, with so many of the contests being hard fought with a lot of questionable plays by both teams, the emotion fans have for some Cincinnati players is palpable behind their apathetic front.

If you need a reference, check out the video below that SB Nation recently produced where they interviewed fans from both teams.

The Black and Yellow gang head to Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday in a game that was flexed out of primetime. However, with the Bengals riding a two-game winning streak, the contest still has major playoff implications for both teams—even if the bigwigs at NBC feel differently.

Maybe it’s because Cincinnati is having a subpar season or because the NFL has finally begun keeping a watchful eye on those associated with the two squads, but this year hasn’t had the same type of smack talk that reached a new level last year. There have been no vague Twitter death threats, nor has there been hits knocking out star players and subsequent player complaints.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an extremely high amount of emotion from both teams heading into Week 15, though. If Pittsburgh wins, they not only eliminate the Bengals from playoff contention, but also essentially sew up the AFC North crown. If Cincinnati wins, they increase their currently low odds to make their sixth straight postseason.

Aside from the playoff implications, there is a lot to digest for the upcoming matchup. If the Bengals are starting to feel good about things after two straight wins, Pittsburgh has to really be puffing out their chests after a four-game win streak. Though the victory over the Giants is the crown jewel in those four games, they still won tough games against Indianapolis on Thanksgiving night and at Buffalo in a borderline blizzard last week.

Still, there are some things finally starting to pile up in the Bengals’ corner this week. After missing basically the last three games with a hamstring injury, wide receiver A.J. Green might be coming back this week. Even if he doesn’t, Cincinnati will have the services of two former Pro Bowlers who were inactive in the Week 2 matchup on both sides of the ball in tight end Tyler Eifert (injury) and linebacker Vontaze Burfict (suspension). Even with the Steelers rolling in their familiar late-season fashion, those additions definitely provide a spark in the game that was missing back in September.

Speaking of Burfict, he’s public enemy No. 1 in Terrible Towel Nation. Aside from the above-embedded video from Steelers fans and Vince Williams’ social media threat thrown No. 55’s way in 2015, a recent Steelers blogger called for Pittsburgh players to target Burfict with the intent to injure him this Sunday, likely in an effort to gain “professional” publicity while airing out his personal wishes.

Vintage Steel Town. Classy.

However, after an offseason where the national media criminalized Burfict for his constant on-field actions, no one outside of Cincinnati seems to pay attention to the antics of head-hunting safety Mike Mitchell. At the risk of showing an overt Bengals bias by chronicling the history here, Mitchell has repeatedly targeted Cincinnati pass-catchers in a dangerous way.

He gave Green a concussion in the 2014 finale, did the same with Eifert last year and has attempted to do it again on other occasions, such as launching himself at Green’s head again in Week 2 this year, which wasn’t even flagged. I’m not bringing Mitchell up to go tit-for-tat, but rather to show that if Burfict is in the Steelers’ players heads, Mitchell might be in the back of the minds of Cincinnati’s receivers as well.

And, both players’ standings with their rivals’ fan bases is a microcosm of the relationship between the franchises. The clashes between the Bengals and the Steelers always come down to who is more physical and which team executes more efficiently in the chess match. Mike Tomlin has largely gotten the better of Lewis in that respect.

It’s been an interesting year when looking at fan reactions towards the Bengals’ head coach. After seeing Los Angeles part ways with Jeff Fisher after five disappointing seasons with the Rams, one can’t help to see some parallels to his tenure with Lewis’ 14 years in The Queen City. The only thing that might become more interesting than the first 14 weeks of criticism shot Lewis’ way this year is what the response will be should he get his Bengals to improbably sneak into the playoffs this year.

In the same vein of Mitchell’s antics being overlooked by the national media, the perceived bad boys of Cincinnati are in a tie with the Houston Texans for being the least-penalized team in the NFL this year. It’s something that could also play into the Bengals’ favor on Sunday, and while the response to the Wild Card loss hasn’t been that of NFL lore, it does appear that the offseason message of composure has had some resonance with the club.

We can’t preview this game without talking about two of Pittsburgh’s star skill position players. Antonio Brown is having another great year, but he hasn’t totally lit up Cincinnati’s defense in the past four matchups—all of which were decided by one possession. He had a 100-yard effort in the playoff game, but was held under 50 yards receiving in two other recent contests.

But, as it often goes with the AFC North, this game very well could come down to the running game. The Bengals’ defense has been a shell of itself this year in that regard, as they are ranked 25th in run defense. It’s an especially scary ranking, given Le’Veon Bell’s epic day against the Bills last week when he racked up 236 rushing yards and three scores in the snow.

Even though the Bengals have Burfict and Eifert this time around, Green might be joining Giovani Bernard on the inactive list. Bernard tore a knee ligament in the same game Green hurt his hamstring, so it’s on Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead to tote the rock. Hill has had a nice bounce-back season, even though it’s been a bit inconsistent, but he’ll need to prove he can run well against teams not named the Cleveland Browns. If he can’t, then it’s on Andy Dalton to have an impeccable day against an always-ferocious Steelers defense.

It’s all about which team handles adversity in a more efficient manner. And, if we’re keeping proper track of things, the Steelers have been better at that aspect than the Bengals. If the December running game is always a key to this tough division, it also has a role in which team ends up playing a more physical brand of football than that of other NFL big boys.

Can the Bengals win without Green if he can’t go? If their being oh-so-close to one of the biggest wins in franchise history last January with a backup quarterback is any indication, then yes, they can. Something tells me that the Bengals are going to make things interesting as the season concludes.

Steelers 17, Bengals 19

AC — Put a hurtin’ on the Steel Curtain.