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NFL Week 2 Bengals at Steelers Game Preview: A matchup 9 months in the making

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For the first time in over nine months, the Bengals face the Steelers in a quest to finally start making a statement to the nation.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

For a large contingent of Bengals fans, Week 2 of the 2016 NFL season brings an opportunity for redemption. On January 9, 2016, the Bengals gave its fan base one of the most cruel losses in franchise history. A loss of composure with under two minutes to play, caused the Bengals to go from leading a bitter rival at home to seeing the game a loss of both the game and their reputation. It was a novel only this franchise could pen.

Yet, through it all, the Bengals have done their best to rise from the ashes this offseason, seemingly on a mission to tell the NFL they aren’t the type of team everyone thinks they are. Personnel losses both among the player and coaching ranks occurred this offseason, but Cincinnati pulled out a hard-fought win in Week 1 in an effort to rebuild their unsung internal character.

Is there such a thing as a big test and a must-win situation as early as Week 2 of the NFL regular season? If so, 1 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field brings that opportunity for both teams.

The Bengals’ season opener against the Jets brought examples of both optimism and pessimism for Who Dey Nation. From one perspective, the Bengals made a number of errors and could have had a more decisive victory. But, the team made plays in all three phases of the game to grind out a tough win on the road against a team who had a double-digit win total in 2015.

We shouldn’t downplay the Steelers’ Week 1 outcome though, either. The Washington Redskins made the playoffs last year and hosted the perennial AFC North powerhouse on Monday Night Football with ESPN’s opening double-header. Pittsburgh embarrassed the Redskins to the tune of 38-16, cementing the media’s near-unanimous stance that Pittsburgh is once again one of the AFC powerhouses, even while facing some familiar roster attrition.

While the major storyline going into this early-season divisional clash surrounds the ending to the Wild Card game, the underlying tone surrounds the lack of some 2015 stars in this game. For the Bengals, Vontaze Burfict and Tyler Eifert will be out of the lineup, while Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant will also be keeping their eyes on the scoreboard at home.

It’s a foregone conclusion that the stars of both teams will play huge roles in getting their respective team a win. However, as kickoff weekend proved in both teams’ wins, role players will need to step up in big ways to prove which well-rounded roster is the one that could eventually yield the division crown this year.

For both teams, the receiving corps will be looked at closely. The Steelers and Bengals employ two of the top receivers in the NFL in Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, respectively, but it’s the stepping up of ancillary weapons that might tell the tale of the end score on Sunday. Both teams saw their primary weapons have big 2016 debuts, but they also had solid contributions from other receiving options and will need these other under-the-radar players to step up once again on Sunday.

Ironically, when talking about players who are and aren’t in the lineup, Bengals safety Shawn Williams comes into discussion. Reggie Nelson, who went to the Raiders in free agency after stalled negotiations with Cincinnati, won’t be tormenting Pittsburgh this year. And while Williams had a game-clinching interception last year against the Steelers on their home turf, the Bengals’ faith in Williams being an all-around player at the back end of the defense might be one of the turning points of Sunday’s outcome.

Also from the Bengals’ side, some of the constant targets of ire made plays to get Cincinnati to 1-0 last week. Kicker Mike Nugent made the game-clinching field goal after a subpar preseason, while defensive lineman Margus Hunt made great plays on defense and special teams. However, center Russell Bodine struggled against the Jets and is now going up against another stout defense in Pittsburgh.

Aside from the Bengals’ wide receivers, those three common public enemies will once again be under the microscope. Ironically, the best performer of the group has the toughest road ahead this Sunday. With a high chance of rain and the deplorable kicking conditions Heinz Field provides, Nugent will need to be at the top of his game.

Though some have questioned why Lewis has lasted this long as the head coach of the Bengals, you can’t overlook his overhaul of team culture and its over-arching effect within the ridiculously physical AFC North division. He’s had success in “The Battle of Ohio” and taken it to his former employers in Baltimore, but the win-loss disparity against the Steelers is right up there with his dubious 0-7 postseason record.

In short, the Steelers have had the Bengals’ number in the Lewis era. What isn’t talked about, though, is his record in Pittsburgh. In Lewis’ tenure, the Bengals have an 8-20 record (a 29% winning percentage) in games against Pittsburgh, including the postseason, giving caution to anyone looking to pick Cincinnati this week. However, six of those eight wins have inexplicably come at Pittsburgh, where they face off again this Sunday.

There are some who don’t subscribe to data, preferring to faithfully employ the “any given Sunday” mantra, but we all know that sometimes trends can’t be ignored. Even when it seemed like the Bengals had a victory sewn up against their bitter rivals to cement their first postseason win since 1991, the powers-that-be harshly kicked them back down to reality once again.

Do numbers lie? Many who follow the Bengals know that the team can surprise its fan base in both positive and negative ways at any point in time. With the Bengals, it’s always wise to employ the “expect the unexpected” motto.

All of that said, emotions and the game of mental chess will be the ultimate decider on Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger admirably stated that the Steelers won’t be looking for retaliation, nor will they be playing dirty this week, but I don’t know if I share Big Ben’s naivete.

When asked about the upcoming divisional clash, Lewis channeled his inner-Bill Belichick, giving a pedestrian-like response to Week 2. Everyone in the Bengals organization has preached poise and patience this offseason, from owner Mike Brown and down the line, with this game likely circled on the schedule as a test in those practices.

While we can rightfully talk about individual matchups and other intensive football vernacular, this game goes beyond those nuances. Reining in emotions, playing sound football and bettering the physicality that Pittsburgh constantly displays are what the Bengals need to utilize in an effort to get to 2-0.

Much like last week between the Jets and Bengals, this game is a coin flip, in terms of who will get the victory. And, for those who are primetime conspiracy theorists, a 1 p.m. Sunday game is one of the factors that plays into the Bengals’ hands.

Bengals 23, Steelers 21

AC — Put a hurtin’ on the Steel Curtain.