38F Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
There are three teams still in contention to win the AFC North, but the struggles of the division's two perennial powerhouses seem to have left the door wide open for the Cincinnati Bengals .
To take that next step, they'll have to start by beating those same two teams they seemingly can't.
The Bengals have lost their last nine meetings against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but they'll play them both over the final two weeks starting Sunday as they try to keep their division title hopes alive - while eliminating the host Steelers from the playoff race entirely.
The Ravens seemed to have the North locked up heading into December with a 9-2 record, but a three-game losing streak has allowed Cincinnati (8-6) and Pittsburgh (7-7) to stay in the race.
That's particularly surprising in the Steelers' case. Pittsburgh has lost four of five after blowing a fourth-quarter lead and falling 27-24 in overtime at Dallas in Week 15, hardly the direction it envisioned its season going after a 6-3 start.
"We have no choice but to put it behind us," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We control our own destiny. At the end of the day, that is all you can ask for."
Beating the Bengals this week and the Browns at home in Week 17 would guarantee the Steelers a wild-card spot, while two victories plus a pair of Baltimore losses would give them the division.
Cincinnati also needs two wins and two Ravens losses to claim the North, but it can control its division fate heading into the final week by beating Pittsburgh and having Baltimore lose to the New York Giants . The Ravens visit Paul Brown Stadium in the season finale.
Most immediately, though, a Bengals' win Sunday clinches a playoff spot while knocking the Steelers out.
"We're picking up momentum," safety Chris Crocker said. "These teams are postseason teams every year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always in the postseason and they always go deep, so it's important for us to play well against them now in order to go in with some momentum if we do make the postseason."
Any momentum the Bengals - winners of five of six after beating Philadelphia 34-13 on Dec. 13 - have brought into recent matchups with the Steelers and Ravens has quickly fizzled. They've lost their past five against Pittsburgh and four against Baltimore, and Andy Dalton is 0-6 with a 64.1 passer rating against Cincinnati's biggest rivals.
His recent play hasn't inspired much confidence. Dalton has a 72.0 rating with three touchdowns and three interceptions in December after posting a 117.2 rating with nine TDs and no picks in his final three games in November.
"I've had chances and I haven't hit them," Dalton said Wednesday. "I expect to play better myself, and I'm going to play better."
He went 14 of 28 for 105 yards with a TD and an INT when the Steelers visited Oct. 21 and Pittsburgh rallied from a 14-3 deficit to win 24-17. The Steelers outgained the Bengals 431-184 as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 278 yards and Jonathan Dwyer ran for 122.
Perhaps most significantly, Pittsburgh limited A.J. Green to just one catch - an eight-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Ike Taylor blanketed Cincinnati's star wideout, but he won't have that chance this time. Taylor will miss his third straight game with a broken ankle.
He's not the Steelers' only injury concern in the secondary. Fellow corner Cortez Allen didn't play against Dallas and starter Keenan Lewis left with a groin injury, while nickel back DeMarcus Van Dyke was placed on IR after separating his shoulder.
Allen, Lewis and fellow cornerback Curtis Brown are all listed as probable. If for some reason they can't go, it could mean plenty of snaps for recent practice squad call-up Josh Victorian , whom Tony Romo picked on for much of his 341-yard performance.
"We are going to have our hands full," coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Bengals have allowed just 12.5 points per game over the past six - best in the NFL in that stretch - while forcing 15 turnovers, and Pittsburgh's offense doesn't exactly seem on the same page heading into this matchup. Roethlisberger openly criticized offensive coordinator Todd Haley's play-calling after the loss to Dallas before apologizing Wednesday.
Even if the hatchet's been buried between Roethlisberger and Haley, there's plenty to fix. Since the first game Roethlisberger missed with a shoulder injury a month ago, Pittsburgh has an NFL-high 18 turnovers.
"There are obviously times that we don't (see eye-to-eye), but we get that ironed out," Roethlisberger said. "I'm sure it's that way with every position player and their coach. ... But it's nothing that is a big deal. You work it out, you talk about it and you get it figured out."
A big deal to Pittsburgh could be figuring out its ground game. The Steelers are 6-1 when they run for at least 95 yards - their 167 against Cincinnati were a season high - and they've averaged 130.4 during their winning streak in this series.
The Bengals have averaged a remarkable 168.2 yards on the ground over their past five games - 92 more than they've put up per game in their last five against Pittsburgh.