By Christina Rivers

The first time the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Cincinnati Bengals this season was in week 14 at Paul Brown Stadium. After struggling to score early, the Steelers exploded on offense in the fourth quarter to annihilate the Bengals, winning 42-21. Pittsburgh ignited that week, going forward to win their next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs to secure a place in the 2014 NFL playoffs. If the Steelers can take care of business against Cincinnati on Sunday night, Pittsburgh could steal the AFC North division from the front runners.

In Week 15, Cincinnati manhandled the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel, 30-0, and are coming off of a rain-soaked win over the Denver Broncos on Monday night. Cincinnati burst to a 20-7 halftime lead by holding Peyton Manning to no points and only 88 yards passing. While Manning orchestrated a comeback in the second half of the game, the Bengals used a stiff defense to create turnovers. Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick were recipients of interceptions and Carlos Dunlap kept up heavy pressure. In the closing minutes of the game, the Bengals took advantage of two turnovers to trot themselves into the post-season for the fourth consecutive season, a franchise record.

Although the Bengals have zero post-season victories since their 1990 season, the game at Heinz Field will have an atmosphere most football fans would expect at the Super Bowl. After an early overthrow that resulted in an interception, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton recovered to finish with 146 yards passing on 17 completions, two touchdowns. Despite a Denver defense that kept him uncomfortable, Dalton utilized rookie Jeremy Hill in the rushing game. Hill rambled for 207 yards overall, an 85-yard touchdown rush for a touchdown pushing him over 1,000 yards on the season. Hill became the third rookie in league history with four games of at least 140 yards rushing, joining Curtis Martin (1995) and Eric Dickerson (1983).

Bengals receiver A.J. Green, who was overthrown on the intercepted pass, was hit hard, injuring his upper right arm. Green was in and out for the remainder of the game and held without a catch for only the second time in his NFL career. He will be evaluated throughout the week before his availability will be determined for the game at Pittsburgh.

The Steelers will need to play a much stouter defense in week 17 than they did in their first game with the Bengals in 2014. Pittsburgh was guilty of allowing Dalton to sneak too many passes behind their defensive secondary. Without Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, Antwon Blake and William Gay will be heavily tested. Of Dalton’s 17 completions on Monday night, only two were thrown farther than ten yards. If the Pittsburgh defensive front can keep Dalton unsettled in the pocket, they can compensate in coverage.

The final game of the regular season between these two teams will clearly be the type of game that will require a full-team effort for the full 60 minutes. Neither team can afford to give an inch or play it safe. The Bengals have moved up this season to be a more daunting rival than the Baltimore Ravens, and the Steelers will have to dig deep in order to play smart football and knock the chip from the shoulders they’ve been carrying around the last two seasons.

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.