‘Sunday Night Football,’ Bengals vs. Steelers 2014: AFC North title on the line in Pittsburgh
The Steelers and Bengals meet under the lights at Heinz Field in a winner-take-all battle for the AFC North division title.
The AFC North has been arguably the most competitive division race in the league this season, so it is fitting the champion will be crowned in a winner-take-all showdown between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football in the final game of the 2014 regular season.
Both teams have already clinched spots in the postseason, but the stakes are still significant in this primetime matchup of division rivals. The winner will not only have bragging rights as the AFC North champ, but also secure a home game in the playoffs. With a win, the Bengals could rise as high as the second seed and receive a first-round bye, if the Denver Broncos lose to the Oakland Raiders; otherwise, the AFC North winner receives the No. 3 seed. The loser of this game will fall to the No. 5 seed and have to negotiate the playoffs as a Wild Card.
The Bengals are coming off a statement win last week in Cincinnati against the Broncos on Monday Night Football, silencing their critics about their inability to win in primetime. Prior to the victory, Cincinnati had lost 13 of its previous 15 night games. However, in order to completely erase the narrative of coming up small in big games, the Bengals still need to show they can win a critical game on the road under the lights. The Bengals are 1-13 in their last 14 prime time games away from home, a stretch of futility that dates back nearly two decades.
The Steelers are in the postseason for the first time since 2011, ending a rare two-season playoff drought. It was just third time since the playoffs expanded in 1990 that Pittsburgh had missed the playoffs in back-to-back years. The Steelers enter tonight’s matchup a half-game behind the Bengals in the standings, but have two decided advantages over Cincinnati, with this game being played at Heinz Field and already having beaten the Bengals in their first meeting a few weeks ago.
Both of these teams are peaking at the right time, having won seven of their last nine games after suffering through bouts of inconsistency in the first six weeks of the season. The Steelers and Bengals were two of the hardest teams in the league to figure out in mid-October, but both appear now to be clicking on all cylinders during this final playoff push. Pittsburgh alternated wins and losses in its first six games before going on its current 7-2 run; Cincinnati started 3-0, then went winless (0-2-1) in its next three games, and has now lost just twice in the last two months.
Despite having righted the ship in recent weeks, the Bengals seem capable of imploding at any time. They are one of two teams (along with the Indianapolis Colts) this season that has three losses of 17-or-more points and at least three wins of 17-or-more points. On the other side of the field, no playoff-bound team this season has played as poorly against losing teams — or as strongly against winning teams — than the Steelers. Pittsburgh is 5-1 against teams over .500 (best record in NFL), but also has four losses to teams below .500 (tied for fifth-most in NFL).
The Steelers will win this game if they can control the clock and make this a time-of-possession game. Thanks to its prolific offense, Pittsburgh ranks second in overall time of possession (32:53) and owns a league-best margin of +5:47 this season. It is 1-2 when losing the time-of-possession battle and 9-3 when owning the clock advantage. Keeping their unspectacular defense — which is allowing a whopping 6.8 yards per play (third-worst in NFL) — off the field will be critical against a Bengals team that is averaging 33.5 points and 350 yards over its last two games.
The Bengals will win this game if they can counter the Steelers’ clock-milking offense with their own dominant ground-and-pound game plan. Cincinnati ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (2,031) and is tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the most rushing touchdowns (19) this season. The Bengals have rushed for at least 200 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since 2003, and have reached the 100-yard mark in five of their last six contests. The Steelers own the league’s sixth-best rushing defense (99.3 yards per game), and have allowed more than 100 yards on the ground in just two of their last eight games.
Who to Watch
Jeremy Hill – The rookie has emerged as one of the best running backs in the league after starting the season buried on the depth chart behind Giovanni Bernard. Hill averaged 27. 9 rushing yards and 7.1 rushes per game over the first half of the season, but is averaging 103.6 yards since being inserted into the starting lineup in Week 9. He is already having a historic season, becoming just the third rookie all-time with at least four 140-yard rushing games in a season, joining Curtis Martin (1995) and Eric Dickerson (1983). However, he had perhaps his worst effort of the season in the Week 14 loss to the Steelers, when he was held to just 46 yards on eight carries.
Antonio Brown – With 122 receptions through 15 games, the wide receiver is on the cusp of re-writing the NFL record books. He needs just two catches to pass Wes Welker (2009) and Herman Moore (1995) for sole possession of second place on the single-season receptions list. The all-time record holder is Marvin Harrison, who had 143 catches for the Indianapolis Colts in 2002. Brown has at least five receptions in every game this season, and torched the Bengals for 117 yards on nine catches in their first matchup this season.
Heinz Field opened in 2001, replacing the historic Three Rivers Stadium, which was home to the Steelers for more than 30 years. The stadium sits on the banks of the Allegheny River with views of the Pittsburgh skyline, and is one of the city’s notable landmarks. The most recognizable parts of the facade are two large, fake Heinz ketchup bottles at the top of the Jumbotron that tip forward and “pour” ketchup on the scoreboard when the Steelers enter the red zone. Despite the presence of those ketchup bottles, the stadium has also been nicknamed The Mustard Palace by fans because of its yellow seats.
How to Watch
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Announcers: Al Michaels, Chris Collinsworth
Online Streaming: NBCSports.com
Most of the experts are siding with the Steelers to win this de facto AFC North championship game. Six of the eight guys at CBS Sports and all 13 of the panel members at ESPN are taking Pittsburgh. Only two of the eight experts at SB Nation think the Bengals can pull off the road upset.
The Steelers opened as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 48, according to OddsShark.com.