By Christina Rivers

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers had quite the split series between them during the 2015 NFL regular season. That the two rivals will meet each other in the first round of the playoffs means that there are sure to be fireworks. The Bengals enter the contest as the number three seed in the conference with a 12-4 record as the AFC North division champions. Throw out the win-loss records on Saturday as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh get ready to make a final statement dead even.

Split Decision

The Bengals won the first game against the Steelers at Heinz Field in Week eight by a score of 16-10. In Week 14, the Steelers were the victors by a score of 33-20. The two games couldn’t have been more different. The Bengals entered the first meeting sitting at 6-0 on the season as the Steelers were looking for answers to major personnel challenges after losing Pro-Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and a knee injury hobbled veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger have a three-interception day and running back Le’Veon Bell was lost for the season in a single play. Andy Dalton led the Bengals to a win despite being sacked three times. Heated exchanges between players on both rosters ahead of the rematch in Cincinnati set off a pre-game scrum. The contest quickly got out of control at a time when the Steelers were powering through a five-game hot streak, Pittsburgh fed DeAngelo Williams on the ground for three touchdowns and the Pittsburgh defense grabbed three interceptions from both Dalton (who broke his thumb making a tackle) and backup A.J. McCarron.

Bengals look to start McCarron on offense

With Dalton scheduled to meet with doctors on Monday, the Bengals are uncertain whether he’s ready to get back into the game. With McCarron under center, Cincinnati has gone 2-1 as he passed for 832 yards and six touchdowns. That’s three starts without a single interception. On Sunday, McCarron said, “I feel like I am finally getting some reps, know the offense a little more and am more used to it.” McCarron also expressed that he did not feel he took good care of the football the last time he faced the Steelers as the backup. “If the (opposing) quarterback turns the ball over and you don’t, it puts your team in a situation to win the ballgame.”

Different mindset from defense heading into playoff meeting

Ten years ago, the Steelers and Bengals met in a playoff game that saw then quarterback Carson Palmer tear his ACL on the second snap of the Wild Card game at Paul Brown Stadium and a 30-17 loss. Head coach Marvin Lewis remembers the game even if his players weren’t on the roster, saying it is, “time to right the ship…exorcism.” Although those sound like fighting words, players on the Bengals defense say they are bringing a different mindset into Saturday’s game. “We’ve talked about that [Week 14] game as a group,’ said cornerback Adam Jones. “We’re not going to have the penalties we had the last time.” Linebacker Vincent Rey added, “We’ll be ready. We weren’t poised the last time we played (the Steelers). We get a chance to redeem ourselves.”

Left end Carlos Dunlap finished the season with a team-high 13.5 sacks, best in franchise history since the league began collecting that particular statistic, on a defense that set a record for the fewest points allowed in a 16-game season with 279. “We’ve had a great year,” Dunlap said. “I’m excited, but now it’s time for the playoffs…”

Things to watch from Bengals, Game Outlook

The Bengals were close to earning a first-round bye against the Denver Broncos and now face Roethlisberger, who many feel is the most talented quarterback in the division. With Williams injured, the Bengals are likely to see Fitzgerald Toussaint at running back and could use that to make the Steelers’ offense very one-dimensional. Roethlisberger has shown moments where he has hurried his passes in similar situations, leading to six interceptions over the last three weeks. A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones were able to take advantage of the Steelers’ defensive backfield that continues to struggle with consistency. This will be a game likely to be handed to the team that plays the cleanest and with the most efficiency. It sounds obvious, but between these two teams there is absolutely no guarantee of success.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist 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 as well as a published author. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.