By: Rich Bergeron
The AFC North is one of the tightest divisons in the NFL this season with three teams at the top with enough time and talent to snatch the lead. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) go into this week tied for the division’s top spot, but the Steelers will have to fight for it this week. If they lose to the 7-4 Bengals and the Ravens lose to the 4-7 Cleveland Browns, there will be a three-way-tie for first place when the smoke clears this Sunday.
The Steelers have had some hot and cold periods this year. Ben Roethlisberger’s (245-385, 3070 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs) been reliable as ever in most games, though. Only two teams have fewer losses than the Steelers: Green Bay and San Francisco. They may not look as impressive as the squad that plowed over their opponents to reach the Super Bowl last season, but the Steelers proved their worth by besting the New England Patriots 25-17 in week 8. This team already beat the Bengals on the road in week 10 by a score of 24-17. This game means much more than the last one, though, as first place is potentially on the table.
The Cincinatti Bengals started the season with grim hopes of competing in their division without the return of longtime QB Carson Palmer, who now plays for the Oakland Raiders. Andy Dalton (218-363, 2509, 16 TDs, 12 INTs) stepped up and proved why the Bengals drafted him, keeping his team in the hunt to this point. If he can put together one of his best games ever, he could lead his team to a road win this week and a share of the division lead. Either way, he’s getting playoff hunt experience as a rookie that few players get in the NFL.
The Bengals will have to depend on the capable rushing of Cedric Benson (188 carries, 740 yards, 5 TDs). and their fleet-footed top receiver A.J. Green (44 rec., 745 yards, 6 TDs) to pull off a victory in this game. It’s the type of game that could be a barn burner if the defenses also perform up to par. The Steelers are always hard nosed on defense, but this year the Bengals are 5th in total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. This could potentially be the game of the week if the Steelers offense doesn’t run away with it early. They have a great blend with their running and passing game. Rashard Mendenhall has six touchdowns already, matching the amount leading receiver Mike Wallace has to go with nearly 1,000 yards receiving on 55 catches.
Both teams can provide explosive offense, but just because “Big Ben” has way more experience doesn’t mean he’s going to romp over the Bengals yet again. Look for Dalton and his dynamic offense to keep this one tight. A touchdown or less wins it for the Steelers, and they keep their share of the lead or get sole possession of it should Baltimore fall flat against the Browns.