PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Pittsburgh Steelers have spent three seasons chasing the Cincinnati Bengals.
Through 2012, when an aging roster and injuries caught up to the longtime AFC North power just as Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and the Bengals were establishing themselves as annual playoff contenders.
Through 2013, when a 2-6 start left Pittsburgh a distant speck in Cincinnati’s rearview mirror as the Bengals won a division title.
And through the first 15 games of 2014, when the Steelers searched two months for something resembling consistency while the Bengals stayed largely above the fray.
Pittsburgh’s pursuit reaches a tipping point Sunday when Cincinnati visits in the regular-season finale. The winner claims the division and a home game when the playoffs start next week. The loser must start the long march to the Super Bowl on the road.
No pressure or anything.
“The intensity couldn’t be more high,” Cincinnati cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “The stakes couldn’t be more high.”
Symbolically or otherwise.
The Steelers (10-5) represent the old guard, albeit with more than a fistful of fresh faces to share some of the burden carried by Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison. The Bengals (10-4-1) are the former laughingstock reborn as solid citizens, albeit ones with a spotty postseason record.
Pittsburgh’s last Super Bowl appearance was only four years ago, yet it’s the Bengals who have the roster stuffed with players who know what it takes to get to January. Then again, the Steelers aren’t exactly overwhelmed by Cincinnati’s recent success. Besides, playing in the NFL’s most competitive division means the elimination games really started a month ago.
“I’m taking my chances with my team,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I don’t care who is on the other side. If we do our job, we’re going to win. We fully believe if we take care of our business, it doesn’t matter what anybody else does.”
It certainly looked that way three weeks ago. The Bengals took a four-point lead into the fourth quarter at home, only to watch the Steelers put up 25 points in less than 10 minutes on their way to a 42-21 victory. A costly fumble by Dalton on a botched handoff permanently ceded momentum to Pittsburgh. The Steelers rode a heavy dose of second-year running back Le’Veon Bell and rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant to arguably its most impressive victory of the season.
The loss could have shaken the Bengals. Instead, it galvanized them. Cincinnati crushed Cleveland and stopped Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos cold on Monday night. The Bengals are getting used to thriving this time of year. Sunday night either represents another important step in their maturation process or a chance for the 20-somethings the Steelers have surrounded Roethlisberger with to come of age.
“It’s going to be a good, high-quality football game, a classic AFC North battle,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “How else would you want it?”
Some things to look for in a game that will echo into January and perhaps beyond.
AJ’S ARM: Bengals receiver A.J. Green had a huge game during the loss to Pittsburgh, catching 11 passes for a career-high 224 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown. He severely bruised his upper right arm during the win over Denver, was in and out of that game, and was held without a catch for only the second time in his career. He missed practice during the week, trying to let it heal. How well the four-time Pro Bowl receiver can block and catch will be a big factor.
LOADED LE’VEON: Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown are having career years, yet when the Steelers were asked to vote for the team MVP, they honored second-year running back Le’Veon Bell. The 22-year-old is second in the NFL in yards rushing and yards from scrimmage. He put up 185 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati, much of the gains on the same counter play over left tackle. Bell has been slowed a bit the last two weeks, though he has scored three times.
RUN IT: The Bengals have turned into a run-based team in the last two weeks, rushing for more than 200 yards each game. Rookie Jeremy Hill has rushed for 148 and 147 yards in the last two games. The Bengals will be looking to set the tone by getting him the ball often.
“It’s a mentality,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. “It’s a mindset. That’s what I think you have to do this time of year. The weather has changed. The games are changing a little bit.”
BRINGING HEAT: Pittsburgh’s iffy pass rush received a jolt last week with the return of linebacker Harrison, who had 1 1-2 of the team’s season-high six sacks after missing two games with a knee injury. The 36-year-old Harrison has played so well since coming out of a brief retirement in September he’s leaving the door open to return in 2015.
PRIMETIME PUNCH: Cincinnati’s upset over the Broncos on Monday night allowed Dalton to shed a bit of the stigma of being unable to deliver under pressure. Dalton is 3-5 when playing in prime time during his career. Compare that with Roethlisberger, who is 4-1 in prime time games this season alone.
AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
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