NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (7-5) at Cincinnati (8-3-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Cincinnati Bengals ran the gauntlet on the road, but they don't have an easy task waiting for them back at home.
The Bengals try to avoid losing ground for the top spot in the AFC North this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, where they play host to a Pittsburgh Steelers club that is just one of many giving chase for the division crown.
Cincinnati departed on a three-game road trip following an ugly 24-3 home loss to Cleveland back on Nov. 6, but managed successful runs through New Orleans, Houston and Tampa Bay. That gave the Bengals road victories over three consecutive weeks for the first time in franchise history.
The Bengals did not allow more than 13 points in any game over the swing and that was the key in Sunday's 14-13 triumph over the Buccaneers as an ill Andy Dalton struggled with three interceptions and just 176 yards passing.
However, Dalton did run for a five-yard score late in the second quarter to get the Bengals on the board and hooked up with wide receiver A.J. Green for a 13-yard scoring strike with 2:04 to play in the third quarter that was the difference.
Dalton, in fact, literally left it all out on the field, and in the locker room.
"He looked bad before the game," said offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I never heard him say a word to anybody. The last I saw him before we took the field, he was bent over a trash can in the locker room."
Dalton, though, didn't blame the illness for his struggles.
"I'm not going to make any excuses for the way things started out," said Dalton, who threw all three of his interceptions in the first half. "(The virus) obviously isn't something you want to deal with, but I'm not saying that's the reason. Obviously I've got to play better in these games coming up."
That's because Cincinnati has limited room for error. At 8-3-1, it leads the AFC North, but has a trio of 7-5 teams right behind it in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore. The Bengals visit the Browns next weekend and close the regular season at the Steelers following a tough home test with Denver.
The Steelers have won six of their last eight versus the Bengals, but were defeated 35-32 by the New Orleans Saints last Sunday. Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed five touchdown passes to five different receivers.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 435 yards on 32-of-58 passing with two late touchdowns to wide receiver Antonio Brown, but was also picked off twice for a Pittsburgh club that had won four of five coming in.
"Just one of those days, a lot of balls were coming out high," said Roethlisberger. "I had to make throws early on that I didn't make tonight and I usually do."
Running back Le'Veon Bell led his club with 159 yards on eight receptions and had 95 yards rushing with a score on 21 attempts, while Brown ended up posting 97 yards on eight grabs.
Bell's receiving yards and yards from scrimmage (254) were both career highs.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The focus of Cincinnati's defense should be Bell, who has emerged as one of the top dual-threat backs in the NFL. His 65 receptions this season are a franchise record by a running back and he also is just 54 yards shy of becoming the first Steelers back to hit 1,100 in a season since Rashard Mendenhall in 2010.
Overall, Bell is the first player in team history to record consecutive games with 200 yards from scrimmage and he leads the AFC with 1,689 scrimmage yards, getting 643 of that through the air.
Of course, this late in the season one has to wonder how 22-year-old's body is handling all of the touches, especially since the Steelers released LeGarrette Blount on Nov. 18. Bell took all but two of Pittsburgh's rushing carries versus the Saints and was targeted 11 times by Roethlisberger.
"We have some other guys that are capable, but obviously he's going to get the bulk of the carries," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "He's a highly conditioned guy. He's a mentally tough guy. He's a competitor. Personally I think he's built for it and he's excited about having an opportunity to do it for us.
Roethlisberger agreed that Bell needs to be a big part of Pittsburgh's offense.
"He's one of the best players in the game," the quarterback said of Bell. "I know that we need to get him the ball and that's running and passing. He played 80-something snaps in that football game and that's kind of unheard of for a running back, especially to take the beating that he does. So as long as he stays healthy that's what matters to me."
While Bell may be the only top-level option in the ground game, Roethlisberger does have an excellent receiver to look towards in Brown, whose 11 touchdown catches this season are one shy of the club record held by four different players.
Brown gets plenty of attention, having notched at least five catches and 50 yards in an NFL-record 28 straight games. He leads the NFL with 1,258 receiving yards.
Despite those options, Roethlisberger has just four touchdown passes to five interceptions over the past three games.
"He hasn't been as accurate as he had been," Tomlin said of Roethlisberger. "Some of it is due to some pressure created in the pocket. Some of it is due to game circumstances. Some we are lacking a little cohesion in some instances. None of those things really happen in a vacuum when you're talking about quarterback play."
Dalton will hope a return home will settle his stomach as the Bengals are 13-1-1 in their past 15 regular-season home games. In his past 15 at home, Dalton has thrown for 3,471 yards with 26 touchdowns.
Though he was sacked only twice, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wasn't happy with the play of his offensive line, one that is still trying to replace the injured Andre Smith, on injured reserve due to a triceps injury.
Marshall Newhouse started in Smith's place versus Tampa Bay and played all but 19 snaps, with Clint Boling seeing the rest of the time there.
"Not good enough. Not as good as we need," said Lewis of the offensive line. "We had a couple guys play pretty well, but as a group we didn't play as well as we need to play. We need to play better."
While Newhouse could start again this weekend, the Bengals did sign 31-year- old veteran Eric Winston this week. Winston started all 16 games last season with Arizona, but was cut by Seattle after its preseason finale this year.
The Bengals rank just 25th against the run, giving up 125.1 yards per game and has two key players dealing with injury in linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) and defensive tackle Domata Peko (elbow).
Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds has 2 1/2 sacks in his last three games for Pittsburgh's 12th-ranked defense.
The AFC North is very much up for grabs and it could very well be decided in Week 17 when the Bengals visit the Steelers. That makes drawing first blood in this matchup key for an edge down the road, assuming both clubs take care of business afterwards.
The Steelers rank third in the NFL with 417.3 yards per game on offense, but Roethlisberger only has an 87.1 career passer rating in this series and just one 300-yard passing game. That makes shutting down Bell key for Cincinnati.
"All of our division games are important games, we know. This is a very, very important football team this week," said Lewis. "It's at home, so the fans will be out and excited big time and have a lot of fun on Sunday. It's a really important game for us."
A healthier Dalton and a home-field edge should allow the Bengals to take care of business this week.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 27, Steelers 24
12/07 09:12:51 ET