By Christina Rivers

Every team in the National Football League’s AFC North division had a bizarre Week 13, but the Pittsburgh Steelers came back against the Saints too late to win while the Cincinnati Bengals may have benefited from a challenge flag thrown by coach Marvin Lewis. Despite the outcomes of those games, these two division rivals will square up for bragging rights on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium and take one step closer to grabbing the division title.

The Bengals saw gutsy, but inconsistent play from quarterback Andy Dalton Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Literally, Dalton was ill and missed meetings on Saturday night before he took I.V. fluids prior to kickoff. Dalton looked peckish under that orange and black helmet, especially after throwing three first-half interceptions. After finding A.J. Green for a 13-yard touchdown strike, Dalton converted two three-and-six situations with passes to James Wright and Mohamed Sanu.

“I thought we did some really good things in the second half,” Dalton said after the game, “but still can play better. We still left a lot out there, and we’ll watch the tape. We’ll look at it but at the end of the day, I’ve got to play better.” In the end, the Bengals won by a single point to a Tampa Bay team that fell to 2-10.

Controversy abounded after the 13-12 win when coach Lewis jumped off the sideline and threw a red challenge flag to get to argue a nicely thrown ball from Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown to Louis Murphy that would have given the Bucs a first down at the Bengals 20 yard-line with 12 seconds remaining in the game. Tampa Bay was lined up to spike the ball when the flag and Lewis came flying. Coaches aren’t allowed to request a play be challenged in the final two minutes, but the Bengals came away with a reversal on the play due to the fact that a replay official, unknown to anyone on the field, had made the decision to take a second look at the play. The Buccaneers had 12 players on the field. That resulted in Tampa Bay turning the ball over on downs with a single second left on the game clock. 

Some may say the Bengals just got lucky after putting an offense on the field that was inconsistent all-around. Running back Giovani Bernard was held to just a 4.9 yards-per-attempt average on 10 carries. Halfback Jeremy Hill finished with just 40 yards on 13 carries. With right tackle Andre Smith on injured reserve, Marshall Newhouse started in his place until Clint Boling took over, forcing Mike Pollak to take the left guard position. “We were getting ready for a worst-case scenario,” said Boling.

The Steelers, who continue to lack a whole-team effort from week to week, can’t expect Cincinnati to roll over in Week 14 despite struggling against Tampa Bay. The Steelers had their own struggles against the Buccaneers. Dalton has proven this season to be a tough competitor and the Steelers defense has been sub-par in the pass rush all season. Not only is Bernard a major factor in the Bengals offense, but Wright is also having a significant rookie season at wide-out. Hue Jackson was willing to pull anything from his playbook to win, including bringing out the wildcat offense, giving Pittsburgh something additional to prepare for this week.

As for defense, Lewis himself described their ups and downs best. “We continued to do the same thing, by flipping off the tackle, small gains became bigger gains, which played a part in the football game. We’ve got to be better at that,” Lewis said on Monday. “We continue to get better at the four-man rush…we’re doing a better job of dictating where the ball is going in the passing game.” Penalties and poor tackling resulted in areas that Lewis insists hurt the team and will be addressed this week in practice. “It’s difficult to win games when you fall off…so we really have to pay attention to that and get better.” Despite the roller-coaster performances, the Bengals have been getting good coverage from their corners and George Iloka. Their success has been due to playing solid positional football. Lewis feels that the lack of wrapping up tackles isn’t a matter of the time of year but an issue where players aren’t doing what they are responsible for. “Tackling is a one-two, and it’s a must,” said Lewis, “and it’s a have-to at this time of the year.”

Lewis called the Steelers a “very important football team,” but feels that Baltimore is a bigger rival. The statement may make great locker room bulletin board material in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers need motivation from their team – not posters – to be ready to go on the road and beat Cincinnati. Relying on a hand-full of players won’t get the job done. Pittsburgh lost defensive end Brett Keisel for the remainder of the season to a torn triceps injury, making the job of rushing the pass and stopping runs around the end of the line even harder than it already has been. The defensive backfield has been consistently suspicious, as has the offensive line.

The Bengals stand squarely in the path the Steelers need to take to have a winning season, let alone a shot at an AFC North title. December ball is always intense, but the Steelers will need to dig deep to battle Cincinnati in hostile territory this Sunday. The Steelers may lead the regular season series 53-34 and postseason series 1-0 over the Bengals, but this is 2014 and every game is critical at this point regardless of history.

For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.