** Bob, Stoneboro, PA
BOB:** They're not laughing because the Bengals match up well against them. But the Steelers are going to be a different team than the one the Bengals beat 29 days ago and the Bengals better be a different team than the one that came home from Detroit two weeks ago with the AFC North title.
The Bengals will be the first to tell you. They haven't played with the same intensity or hunger since they made the playoffs. Maybe that's natural and maybe, in the end, that will help them play with that much more energy this Sunday.
Of course, maybe not, too. To me, the last two weeks haven't been a question of talent but of mindset. Nobody is going to argue with you that they need a couple of more pieces on defense before the pundits anoint them a Super Bowl favorite. But they were good enough to win 11 out of 14, which, you would think, makes them good enough to get there if they can string together some games like they did earlier in the season.
Marvin did the right thing by resting his people Sunday in Kansas City and getting them out of there. He had every right to take his bye week. They earned it by winning the North. But he's got to be concerned with what happened in the last two minutes of the first half with what looked to be much of the first defense. It has to be hard to turn this stuff on and off. Their lack of tackling in the last two weeks has to have something to do with that. It's clearly the worst stretch this season, and you hope they can just reach down and get it back, but it makes you wonder.
The Steelers may be wondering about that, too, but they aren't laughing, either. Carson Palmer has too many weapons for that. And while the Steelers' defense has been superb, they know that in their four-game winning streak to end the season they have faced offenses ranked 29, 25, 26, and 27 in the NFL, with the No. 6 Bengals on deck.
I'm sure the Steelers are salivating at the thought of running the ball and the thought of the Bengals scoring a couple of quick touchdowns early would certainly wipe away a few smiles. The Xs and Os of this thing remain what they were on Oct. 23 and Dec. 4. The Bengals made the Steelers one dimensional and made them throw in the win, which is why the Bengals' best defense against the Steelers is the Bengals' offense.
What happened against Buffalo and Kansas City didn't change the Steelers' resolve to run the ball and the Bengals' resolve to make them throw it. Whatever questions of anxiety, angst, intensity, psyche (boy, does Marvin hate that word) should be taken care of by the buzz that surrounds the most anticipated NFL game in Cincinnati since the Bills came to Cincinnati to decide the 1988 AFC championship.
At home, in the playoffs, against the Steelers, they'll have the requisite fire. Then we'll find out if that's what has been missing.