60F Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Cincinnati has had a knack for second-half comebacks this season. Unfortunately for the Bengals, their rally fell short against the Pittsburgh Steelers three weeks ago.
Looking to avenge another defeat to their AFC North rival, the Bengals try to avoid a fourth consecutive loss to the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field.
With Pittsburgh at 8-3 and Cincinnati right behind at 7-4, the teams currently hold both wild-card spots in the AFC. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have the same record, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker and the division lead based on their two wins over the Steelers this season.
That makes Sunday's contest critical for both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in terms of further solidifying their playoff position.
Pittsburgh's 24-17 win at Cincinnati on Nov. 13 was its third straight over the Bengals and eighth in the last 10 meetings. The Steelers led 14-0 in that contest, but the Bengals rallied to tie the game at 17 in the third quarter.
Trailing by a touchdown, Cincinnati was driving to tie the game again late in the fourth when rookie quarterback Andy Dalton threw an interception inside the Steelers' 20-yard line in the closing minutes.
"We went toe-to-toe with them," said rookie Bengals receiver A.J. Green, whose only catch of that game went for a 36-yard touchdown. "We belong in that league."
One of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, Cincinnati has quickly blossomed into a playoff contender even with its two biggest offensive threats being rookies.
The Bengals' ability to come from behind has been a big reason for their success. They've won four games in which they've trailed at halftime, tying an NFL record by three times erasing double-digit halftime deficits to win.
The most recent rally was last Sunday, when they overcame a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter, scoring the final 13 points and avoiding a third straight loss with a 23-20 home win over Cleveland.
"We're just finding a way to win," said Dalton, whose 16 touchdown passes this season are the most ever by a Cincinnati rookie. "It doesn't matter what goes on or when it goes on. We've been in every game that we've played."
Though the Bengals continue to gain confidence from their second-half success, coach Marvin Lewis knows that his team likely can't afford to fall behind Pittsburgh and expect to come out ahead.
"If we've got breath left, let's keep using it," Lewis said. "We seem to be comfortable being behind and fighting back, (but) I would love to learn how to play with the lead. We have to work hard to reverse that if we can. We are going to work hard to fix that."
Cincinnati was held to 279 total yards - its fewest in the last four games - against Pittsburgh last month. Cedric Benson was limited to 57 yards on 15 carries, but hopes to build on last weekend's performance when he recorded 106 yards and a TD on 21 rushes versus Cleveland.
The 109 rushing yards the Bengals amassed as a team versus Pittsburgh marked the only time in the last five games the Steelers allowed an opponent to gain more than 90 yards on the ground. The Steelers held Kansas City to 90 rushing yards and 252 total yards in their 13-9 win at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night.
While the offense struggled, Pittsburgh's defense forced a season-high four turnovers and limited the Chiefs to three field goals.
"You're happy to get the win, but also disappointed with how the offense played," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I think that's what team is all about. The defense stepped up huge and they carried us."
Pittsburgh could finally be at full strength defensively Sunday. Troy Polamalu took a blow to the head against the Chiefs, but coach Mike Tomlin said any concussion symptoms subsided quickly. He was back practicing Thursday as was linebacker LaMarr Woodley , who hasn't played since Oct. 30 with a left hamstring injury.
Roethlisberger is expected to be fine despite leaving practice early Thursday after slightly aggravating his fractured right thumb. However, the injury may have plagued him in Kansas City as he finished with a season-low 193 passing yards and the Steelers totaled a season-worst 290.
"I don't think it's anything to panic over. It's one game," said Roethlisberger, who had one TD pass and one interception for the third straight game.
He was 21 of 33 for 245 yards in Cincinnati last month, but he's been at his best at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger has a 102.7 passer rating at home, as opposed to 83.6 on the road.
Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall was held to 44 yards on 16 carries at Cincinnati, but he scored a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winner on a 9-yard run in the third quarter. He has totaled 255 yards on 72 carries in his last five games since gaining a season-high 146 yards Oct. 16 during a win over Jacksonville.