With the logjam among the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Raven in the AFC North, every divisional contest from here on out can be considered "must win." A loss, like the Bengals suffered three weeks ago at the hands of Pittsburgh would all but bury any division title hopes for Cincinnati. A win for the Bengals would vault them back into the race and put the Steelers in the unenviable position of being 1-3 within the division. Here's what must happen today for Cincinnati to avenge the earlier loss and move back into title contention:
1. AJ Green stays on the field. As Bengals 101 outlined yesterday, AJ Green is the key factor in Cincinnati's success. In the first game against Pittsburgh, he left the game in the first half after an acrobatic touchdown grab over two Pittsburgh defenders. With him out of the game, Andy Dalton struggled to find open receivers in the Bengals' comeback attempt. His two second half picks were both due to miscommunications on routes. Dalton and Green have developed a mystical chemistry. If he can stay healthy and on the field, the Bengals have a chance.
2. A banged up secondary contains Pittsburgh receivers. Leon Hall is out for the season and Nate Clements is questionable, having not practiced all week. Can Kelly Jennings and Adam Jones control the Pittsburgh receivers? Can Brandon Ghee, just up from the practice squad, be effective in nickel situations? The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead in large part because Cincinnati couldn't contain Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown on third down situations. Part of that will be getting a better pass rush on Ben Roethlisberger (Carlos Dunlap is out again) but Cincinnati has to get the Steelers off the field on third down.
3. Take care of the football. The weather in Pittsburgh looks to be a non-factor for a December game. The wind is always an issue at Heinz Field, but more for kickers, so handling a slippery pigskin or throwing into a stiff wind won't be an issue. The Steelers' defense will, especially with the return of Lamarr Woodley. Woodley has missed Pittsburgh's last three games with a hamstring injury and is still second in the AFC in sacks. The Steelers picked off Andy Dalton twice in the fourth quarter of their first game to preserve their seven point win. If the Bengals can avoid either forfeiting their own scoring chances through turnovers or giving Pittsburgh extra opportunities, they have an excellent opportunity to come away with a win.
Earlier this week on Colts 101 I picked a Bengals victory. That was before Clements was questionable. This will be yet another Bengal nail-biter, but the lack of depth in the secondary might be too much for Cincinnati to overcome. Steelers 17, Bengals 13.
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