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Bengals Preview, Week Seventeen: Steelers (Again)

The achievement of making the playoffs this season is likely to be glossed over as insignificant since it's the fourth straight of its kind, none of which has produced a January win. When looking at it closer though, a 2014 playoff berth was an uphill struggle at various points for what began as an extremely talented team but took on major blows on the injury front to multiple stars early in the season.

If it weren't for the lift that Jeremy Hill and Rey Maualuga gave this team at the midway point, they may have needed other team's to lose to get in.

Dalton seemed to regress some from last year. This could be from the lack of playmakers Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and even A.J. Green at various points, but there were too many games that he simply looked totally inept to say he was even on par with his usual self. The offensive line lost Andre Smith and a dose of panic set in when backup Marshall Newhouse initially looked incapable of blocking NFL pass rushers. The acquisition of free agent veteran Eric Winston was a perfect band aid to settle down that particular concern.

Giovani Bernard was another issue in terms of durability and staying injury free. The little spark plug gave credence to his critics on if he could stay healthy and manage the proverbial load that the Bengals offense originally had in store for him. Jeremy Hill did not play like an average draft pick. He exploded on the scene this season with monster game after monster game. Unlike Bernard has ever done, Hill kept the Bengals offense on schedule and took tremendous amounts of pressure off Dalton. The offensive line and Jeremy Hill are this season's team MVP.

They played an inspired game last week with an incredible win over the Broncos on Monday Night Football. It was the loudest regular-season statement game in the Marvin Lewis era since beating the undefeated Chiefs at home in 2003. Because of this, the team should be confident and should believe they can have another meaningful late-season victory in Pittsburgh. For three quarters last game, the Bengals beat the Steelers.

But...

The Pittsburgh offense is arguably the best in the league right now with one of the most unique running backs to emerge in a long time in Le'Veon Bell, and on the most reliable receivers in Antonio Brown. Big Ben is having a terrific season with these stars surrounding him, and Dick LeBeau has kept the defense just good enough not to lose games. Even outside of the divisional rivalry whose historical numbers suggest a lopsided comparison, this is a scary Pittsburgh team. The Chiefs got to Roethlisberger enough to knock him down and have Bruce Gradkowski briefly warm up on the sidelines, but the guy remains a rock giant in the pocket, with deceptive maneuverability and crazy field awareness.

Cincinnati knows what he's capable of and knows that he improvises his way to wins over Ohio teams on a regular basis, but what does a defense focus on against such a balanced attack? Le'Veon Bell seems like a sensible top priority considering he shredded the Stripes last time and broke their back in the fourth quarter. Bell is wreaks havoc outside of the tackles. He can be a decent in-the-box runner too, but his hesitation style usually leads him to the flats where he breaks off sizable gains and huge chunks of the opposition's confidence. Bringing safeties up to stop Bell, leaves the veteran secondary vulnerable to the deep ball—a play the Steelers run so well—but long passes are still more difficult to convert big yardage rather than simply handing the ball off.

When Cincinnati is on offense, they will look to ride the wave that Hill has given them in the run game, but the Steelers will be waiting on this. That's why this game seems like it must be won on Dalton's arm, not only to keep Pittsburgh honest, but also send a message to the next team they play that they too are a dual-purpose offense. Dalton played well against the Steelers in the first meeting, but still had the crucial turnover on the hand off exchange with Hill that turned the tide of the game for good. If Dalton can convert from the pocket and the Bengals can once more score over 30 points, they will win, but asking a still shaky quarterback to win a game largely on his shoulders for the division on the road in prime time is asking a lot and may not be fair on Dalton. He certainly isn't incapable of it, but he may still not be ready.

Steelers 30, Bengals 27

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor

Photo via Bengals