NFL Preview - Cincinnati (9-4) at Pittsburgh (5-8)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Once is chance and twice is a coincidence but a third time? Well, that's a trend.
The Cincinnati Bengals will be chasing history in Western Pennsylvania on "Sunday Night Football."
The Bengals enter Week 15 with a two-game lead in the AFC North over Baltimore. A victory on Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers coupled with a loss or tie by either the Ravens or Miami in Week 15, and Cincinnati will be en route to the postseason for the third straight year, something that has never happened before in the 46-year history of the franchise.
"We've just got to take care of our business and we'll be all right," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said. "If we just win out we'll be OK. That's all we've got to do: win out and let everything else take care of itself."
A triumph by Cincy and a loss by Baltimore on Monday night in Detroit means the AFC North is the Bengals'.
"We know what we're capable of and we've got some momentum now," said Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, whose ascension to the starting position with the Bengals has coincided with their current run. "But we've got to keep it going."
Dalton accounted for four touchdowns -- three passing and one rushing -- to lead the Bengals to a 42-28 win over the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday in a battle of division leaders.
Dalton threw for 275 yards on 24-of-35 passing and BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 48 yards and two touchdowns as Cincinnati won its third game in a row and remained unbeaten at home.
A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Jermaine Gresham all had touchdown catches for the North frontrunners and Giovani Bernard led all rushers in the game with 99 yards on 12 carries.
"We had some long drives, some big plays and kept scoring points," said Dalton. "We needed to keep it going and the offense did a really good job today being balanced. We had some big runs and some big catches."
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has lost two straight and finds itself two games out of the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Steelers will need to win out from here and get plenty of help to make a run at the postseason.
"A lot has to happen, but you never know," said Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood. "You don't want to look back and say we didn't take care of what we had to do. We have to keep looking up and do what we know we can do."
Last week the Steelers nearly pulled off a miracle, but Antonio Brown barely stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone on a final play that featured five laterals, as the Miami Dolphins escaped snowy Heinz Field with a 34-28 victory.
Charles Clay's gritty 12-yard touchdown catch with 2:53 remaining put the Dolphins in front and Caleb Sturgis added a 27-yard field goal for a six-point margin before the Steelers got one final chance.
They almost engineered a sequel to the famous Cal-Stanford band play from 1982.
Facing 4th-and-9 from his own 21 with just a few seconds remaining, Ben Roethlisberger's pass was caught up the right sideline and the laterals began. Roethlisberger wound up with the ball again and flung it toward Brown along the left sideline near the Pittsburgh 40. Brown eluded a couple of Miami defenders and took it all the way to the end zone for what would have been a stunning finish, but officials ruled he stepped on the sideline at the 13-yard line to end the game.
"I tried to make a play," said Brown. "I thought I had it clean."
"Not enough playmaking by us," added Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who had his own high-profile sideline problems on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore. "Obviously enough playmaking by them."
Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes for the Steelers, who have lost the two straight after a three-game winning streak.
The Steelers lead the all-time series with a dominating 52-34 edge but the Bengals won the first matchup this season, 20-10, when Bernard scored on a 7- yard TD run and a 27-yard TD catch from Dalton while the Bengals defense allowed just 44 rushing yards.
"We didn't win the first game against these guys," said Pittsburgh receiver Jerricho Cotchery. "We are going to be up for the challenge. Guys are going to be ready to play."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Bengals haven't been spectacular this season but they have been rock solid on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, despite some midseason hiccups, Dalton is on pace to have his best season to date with an 87.7 passer rating, while the backfield duo of Green-Ellis and Bernard has provided a bit of thunder and lightning, with Green-Ellis serving as the move-the-chains-type and Bernard the field stretcher.
Outside the numbers Green remains one off the two or three best receivers in the game while Jones has developed into a nice complement with eight TD receptions.
Overall, Cincinnati is averaging 25.7 points per game, good enough for a top 10 spot in the league.
On defense the Bengals sport one of NFL's best pass rushes despite missing All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
Replacing Atkins' production has been accomplished by a committee approach with 12 different Cincinnati defenders other than Atkins having at least one sack on the season.
That's an imposing thought for Pittsburgh and its banged-up offensive line, which has allowed Roethlisberger to be sacked 38 times in 2013, good for third-worst in all of football.
When Roethlisberger is protected he is still extremely effective and has picked things up recently, throwing 11 TDs with no interceptions in his last four outings.
Roethlisberger is 14-6 in his career versus the Bengals and Pittsburgh has dominated this rivalry historically but this is a different Cincinnati team with a different mindset.
A third straight postseason appearance is almost a fait accompli for the Bengals and that process starts Sunday night in the Steel City.
"We're on a roll," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "At the beginning of the year, we had three goals. We wanted to be undefeated at home, win the AFC North and eventually be world champions."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 21, Steelers 20
12/12 13:47:49 ET