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NFL Week 7 Bengals at Steelers game preview: Head hunting

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To say that this one means a lot would be a massive understatement.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers week.

For the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans, these bi-annual matchups are mini-Super Bowls, and they have recently helped to determine AFC North winners.

For Pittsburgh, however, it seems to just be another game on the schedule. Maybe it’s because of their championship heritage or their domination of Cincinnati in the most frequent and heartbreaking of fashions; the rivalry just doesn’t seem to matter as much to those in the Steel City.

Nobody truly knows who these two teams are at this point. Pittsburgh has impressive wins against the Vikings, Ravens and Chiefs, but also inexplicably lost to Jacksonville and Chicago. Did we mention that they barely got by a winless Cleveland team to kick off the year?

Hey, let’s not sugarcoat things: it hasn’t been much better in Cincinnati. After tumbling to an 0-3 start, the Bengals have recovered with two straight wins, with their only impressive one against Buffalo.

Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t brought the Steelers offense to the level most thought it would be at this point in 2017. Yes, they’re No. 11 in passing offense regarding yards per game, but Roethlisberger has seven touchdowns against eight interceptions so far this year.

And, in true Big Ben form, he went all drama queen about his performances thus far. "Maybe I don’t have it anymore," Roethlisberger told the media after a five-interception day against the Jaguars. Did he just want a hug?

Still, it’s in these criticisms that the great ones find a way to play some of their best football. Big Ben is one of the best this league has ever seen, so the Bengals defense needs to be on even higher alert than usual against No. 7.

Andy Dalton isn’t viewed in the same vein as Roethlisberger, but he’s been a solid NFL quarterback. And, like Big Ben in 2017, Dalton has had his share of struggles. Still, after a terrible first two games, Dalton has played much better football under new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor.

After throwing zero touchdowns and four interceptions in the first two contests, Dalton has thrown seven scores against just two picks. Even so, he’s walked the razor’s edge in games under Lazor, with other turnovers being possible, if not for drops by opposing defenses.

Presenting further problems for Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green is a reinvigorated Steelers pass defense, thanks to Joe Haden joining Pittsburgh’s defense. Green and Haden have had some major battles that date all the way back to their SEC college days, so it will be interesting to see how Haden fares against Green while donning different colors.

A side story of this matchup is the nastiness of two particular defenders on each team. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been labeled as an NFL villain, given his questionable hits, which date back to his days at Arizona State.

However, Steelers safety Mike Mitchell has also started to gain attention as a "cheap-shot artist." While Pittsburgh, for one reason or another, continues to gain favor in their questionable antics, Mitchell is starting to gain a reputation that rivals that of Burfict.

Will either of these guys make a play to infuriate the opposition? Should we just chalk up their play to a "nasty attitude"? Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on with these questions, these two players will be under the microscope in addition to the multitude of skill position stars both teams employ.

Heinz Field is notoriously unkind to kickers, so that could be a factor this Sunday, but two really good defenses are squaring off. The Bengals have the No. 2 overall defense, just ahead of Pittsburgh at No. 3, while the Steelers are No. 1 against the pass and the Bengals are No. 2.

Who can run the football? While the Steelers have one of the best running backs in football with Le’Veon Bell, but they have been the definition of "pedestrian" in the category with a No. 16 overall ranking. Meanwhile, the Bengals’ supposed three-headed monster of Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, and Joe Mixon has been extremely tame.

Mixon has a paltry 2.8 yards per carry, while Hill has just a 3.4 average in the same statistical category. Bernard has popped some big plays, but the openings paved by the Bengals’ offensive line have been sparse.

A lot of things point to a Pittsburgh victory. They’re feeling good about beating a then-4-0 Chiefs team, they’re at home, and they’re riding a trademark Steelers defense. Oh, and they’re facing an opponent they’ve largely owned—particularly in the Marvin Lewis era.

Whoever wins, it will be a squeaker with the last possession likely determining the outcome. I think the Bengals sneak another one out on Pittsburgh’s home turf in an extremely ugly slobber-knocker.

Bengals 17, Steelers 16

AC — This one’s for Lisa.