Key Matchups: Bengals vs. Steelers

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KEY MATCHUPS
DECEMBER 31, 2006

A former top NFL team executive (The Guru) and a current personnel director of a team not in the Bengals division (The Chief) break down Sunday's game and give the edge to the Bengals in what they see as a game as bitterly contested as if it were a playoff game. And for the Bengals it is.

The Guru: Cincinnati has to be very disappointed with what happened in Denver. They're a better team and to not be able to get off the extra point, there's no excuse for it. They should have plenty of incentive for this one. I'm sure they still remember what happened there last year in the playoffs. It's going to come down to who can run the ball and who can stop it, and Cincinnati's receivers are better than Pittsburgh's defensive backs. They'll have the opportunity to score points and put pressure on Roethlisberger.

The Chief: This should be a layup for the Bengals. They always find a way to score on the Steelers and they always seem to get the Steelers defense back on their heels. Tough loss in Denver. The extra point just caps it off. The Bengals are a good team, but some things just didn't go their way and some years that happens. Maybe they back in. Both scenarios (a Jets loss or a Chiefs victory and Denver loss) are possible."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis vs. Steelers head coach Bill Cowher

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Lewis

Will he or won't he? Conventional wisdom is that this is Cowher's last game for Pittsburgh, and what better place than where he's got a 6-1 record, where the opponents are coached by one of his former assistants who beat the Steelers for the AFC North title last season.

"The way it sounds is that Bill doesn't want to lose to Marv and Marv doesn't want to lose to Bill," said Bengals defensive end Bryan Robinson.

Both men are coaching clubs in which they have to dig deep to pull out a big-time effort on the season's final Sunday. The Steelers are out of the playoffs and the Bengals should be in but have a cloud hanging over their heads still black from a four-turnover loss in Denver.

And both men have been in command of underachieving teams this season. Cowher's defending Super Bowl champion Steelers didn't lose any impact players in free agency, kept their coaching staff intact, and yet they were never with it. Which makes you wonder if Cowher started the vacation early.

Lewis also didn't have any big-time free-agency losses or any changes on his coaching staff.

And both had to deal with injuries to their quarterbacks, but both came back, albeit Carson Palmer better than Ben Roethlisberger.

But it hasn't happened. The Bengals' failure to come up big in big games (New England, Indy, Denver), which surfaced in the Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh, and the ability to lose to lesser teams (Tampa Bay, Atlanta) haunts all that Lewis has accomplished here. He needs to find something this week to ignite his team and avoid another big-game gaffe.

"I think injuries hurt them this year, particularly along the offensive line," The Guru says. "I think that led to the quarterback not to have some confidence early on. But the big thing is that nonsense off the field (eight arrests). The players can say that it's not a distraction and all that, but it affects so many things. They have to sit down as a team and evaluate what they do to evaluate guys and how they come to those decisions."

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
* center>QB Carson Palmer vs. The Calendar*

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Palmer

He can throw on Pittsburgh. In his last two games against the Steelers Palmer has thrown seven touchdown passes.

Polamalu does so much of his damage at the line of scrimmage (77 tackles, one forced fumble) that if Johnson can punish and/or get him thinking about the pass, the zone blitz has taken a big shot. It was Polamalu that Johnson buried on his game-clinching 14-yard TD run in Pittsburgh last season and it is Johnson who has four 100-yard games in December at PBS.

Always one of this game's superb matchups. Smith, an end who plays like a tackle, has 4.5 sacks and is a beast to run against. Meanwhile, Anderson rolls into 2007 making his 112th straight start.

"Football is all about recognition," The Chief says. "The Bengals see the Steelers twice a year and they know what do. The Steelers don't have the same confidence when they play Cincinnati because they know that. Braham was so good at seeing all that and Ghiaciuc will be better than he was the first time."

"They basically have two defenses," The Chief says. "First and second down, and third down. You get them in a third-down play when its first down and you're in business. The Bengals always seemed to get Pittsburgh back on their heels because they can spread them out and run it and pass."

"I think they do miss (Antwaan) Randle El," The Guru says. "And (Jerome) Bettis' leadership."

Colon is making just his second NFL start and while he held up all right against Pro Bowlers like Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs in last week's loss to Baltimore, the rest of the line didn't and allowed five sacks. Protecting Roethlisberer has been a problem. The Steelers are sixth worst in the league in giving up sacks per pass and the 315-pound Colon's mauling style may be not be a good match for Geathers' 10.5-sack quickness.

Smith has to make sure Parker doesn't bounce outside, where he prefers to run. Parker had 133 yards the last time the two teams met in Game 3, and 136 in the playoff game. But the Bengals have allowed only two 100-yard rushers since, and that one was LaDainian Tomlinson's 104 six games ago. They are 12th in NFL run defense, but this is a tough run game to stop. It's got two 200-yard games this season to go with two of at least 140. The Bengals haven't allowed more than 129 in their last eight games.

When was the last time the Bengals had a leg up on the Steelers kicking game? K Shayne Graham and P Kyle Larson are out-kicking Reed and Chris Gardocki, respectively. Graham has hit 85 percent of his field goals and has 13 touchbacks while Reed is 73 and four, respectively. Larson has drilled 25 punts inside the 20 while Gardocki has only done it 10 times.

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