The Pittsburgh Steelers, for the first time in quite a while, are entering their final regular season game of the season in control of their own destiny in terms of winning their own division. The last time they were the champions of the AFC North, they made it to the Super Bowl. They have only played one postseason game since then, which they of course lost.
While the Steelers have already guaranteed themselves a playoff spot for the first time in three years with their victory last week, a fourth consecutive win would bump them to the third seed, with a cushy playoff game and an easier opening round opponent. There is still a lot riding on Pittsburgh sweeping the season series against the Cincinnati Bengals tonight.
The defense spent a lot of the first game pinballing back and forth and giving up leads, which included a deep strike for 81 yards to end the third quarter and give the Bengals a temporary advantage before the offense turned the scoreboard on its head.
However, the Steelers have held their last three opponents to 21 points or less, including just 12 in the last game, and that is the best streak that they have found all season. Perhaps the unit as a whole is starting to click just enough at the right time.
It’s also about as healthy as it’s going to get, with James Harrison looking as good as he has in years and reaffirming his place in the starting lineup, which was well-earned. Jason Worilds also picked things up in the pass rush during the Steelers’ last game, and he will hope to continue that against the Bengals’ right tackle.
Lawrence Timmons, newly minted as a Pro Bowler for the first time, continues to see a rotation of three players next to him, but he seems to have gotten used to it. And the inside linebackers as a whole appear to be playing in sync more with the defensive line over the past few weeks.
Of course, that line looks different than it has, as well, with the return of Steve McLendon from a shoulder injury and the insertion of Stephon Tuitt into the starting lineup. And their play certainly hasn’t negatively affected Cameron Heyward’s efforts at all, who came off yet another very strong performance last week.
Getting Troy Polamalu back before the playoffs would be a boost, and Mike Mitchell seems to have been a bit more consistent during the Steelers’ winning streak. The cornerbacks that the Steelers have left to work with, but if they can keep the pressure on the quarterback, as they did in the last game, they can win games.
The Bengals enter this game with some of their key players on offense either banged up or ill. It will be interesting to monitor whether or not that plays any kind of role in the game tonight at Heinz Field—hopefully not the last one this season.