51F Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
An inability to close out road games and a short-handed lineup have the Pittsburgh Steelers carrying a losing record this late into a season for the first time in coach Mike Tomlin's tenure.
While they'll likely still be missing some players, the Steelers would appear to have their opportunity to end their road drought Sunday night as they've won 10 of 11 in Cincinnati. The Bengals, however, are eager to rebound from their own late collapse to another AFC North rival and avoid a third straight defeat.
Pittsburgh had started 6-2 or better in each of coach Mike Tomlin's first five seasons, but entering this game 2-3 has the Steelers concerned about their playoff hopes. They've reached the postseason in eight of the last 11 years, made three Super Bowl appearances and won two championships.
"The panic button, we're tapping on it," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We ain't got two hands on it, but we're kind of nibbling on it a little bit. ... We can't lose no more, that's the approach. Five, six losses you ain't going to be in the playoffs."
Pittsburgh hasn't been below .500 entering Week 7 since 2006, when it started 2-6 after claiming the franchise's fifth Super Bowl victory in coach Bill Cowher's penultimate campaign.
The Steelers, though, would have headed into this week undefeated had they held on to fourth-quarter leads in each of their three road games. In the most recent of those contests Oct. 11, they were ahead of Tennessee by a touchdown with 4:20 to play but gave up 10 unanswered points in a 26-23 defeat.
After Shaun Suisham missed a 54-yard kick with 54 seconds left, the Titans drove for Rob Bironas ' 40-yarder as time expired. Pittsburgh also lost on a last-second kick in a 34-31 defeat in Oakland on Sept. 23 and gave up 17 unanswered points in a 31-19 season-opening loss in Denver on Sept. 9.
"It comes down to playmaking," said Tomlin, whose team has given up 40 fourth-quarter points in those defeats, "and we haven't made enough significant plays."
A spate of injuries hasn't helped, but linebacker LaMarr Woodley could return from a strained left hamstring this week. Center Maurkice Pouncey might also play after a right leg injury caused him to leave the loss to Tennessee.
The Steelers, though, likely won't have safety Troy Polamalu (calf), linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle). Rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu was suspended two games Tuesday following his arrest over the weekend.
The Bengals (3-3) will try to take advantage of those absences to regain some momentum and end a four-game skid to Pittsburgh. Cincinnati has lost back-to-back games after winning three in a row and gave up 21 fourth-quarter points in last Sunday's 34-24 defeat in Cleveland.
"It's not time to jump ship," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We're 3-3 just like everybody else in our conference. At the end of the day, it's not about wins and losses, it's about who makes the playoffs.
"Our goals are all still right there in front of us. Somebody that's 3-3 has to go win some games and get in the playoffs. Why not be us?"
Andy Dalton threw for a career-high 381 yards and three touchdowns but also had three interceptions for the second time in 23 career games.
"We've got to fix it. Obviously we are not playing consistently enough for the ability of the guys that we have," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're almost too nice at times and we've got to have more of a killer instinct."
The Bengals didn't show much of that instinct during last season's matchup in Cincinnati on Nov. 13. They rallied to tie that game at 17 midway through the third quarter but eventually lost 24-17.
Pittsburgh blew out the Bengals 35-7 at Heinz Field on Dec. 4 and has prevailed in 19 of 25 meetings, including an AFC wild card game in 2006.
Dalton completed 26 of 54 passes (48.1 percent) and failed to top 170 yards in each of his first two games against Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger didn't surpass 250 yards in last season's matchups but had three touchdowns and only one interception.
Roethlisberger, who is 7-1 lifetime at Cincinnati, has thrown for 747 yards with five TD passes and one interception in his last two road games.