The 6-4 Bengals vs. the 5-4-1 Steelers Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) with seven games left.
Really, is there anything left to be said than that?
Given the chance, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable always says more. Knowing it is going to be a thoroughly different and closer game than the Bengals' 24-10 victory two months ago at Heinz Field, it is split right down the Ohio River.
The hardest working man in show business, Bengals radio play-by-play artist Dan Hoard, who is also the voice of University of Cincinnati football and basketball, clears his throat to predict the kind of tight Bengals' win that sends partner Dave Lapham to the booth doctor. Maybe it is Lap's old Bengals teammate, Dr. Tommy Casanova, who averaged more than 12 yards per his 15 career punt returns against the Steelers.
James Rapien, who covers the Bengals for Sports Illustrated, sees Joe Burrow making a couple of more plays than the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger in the first Cincinnati matchup of the two Ohio-bred quarterbacks.
The Steelers contingent has been offering readers of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette their skilled reporting and acute observations for three decades now and it is has the same vibe. Steelers beat man Gerry Dulac and columnist Ron Cook see a furious fight to the finish that the Steelers win because they must after what happened to them last Sunday night in Los Angeles.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season and one year they were 5-8. It looked hopeless and they ended up winning three in a row and were still in it in the last week and didn't make it. He's never lost a team. He obviously hasn't won many playoff games, but they'll be ready to go.
Burrow scares me. It looks like Watt is going to play. What a difference he makes. He's a game changer. They never touched Burrow in that first game. There wasn't one quarterback hit in that game. And they didn't have their two edge rushers. Alex Highsmith didn't play either. The Bengals aren't going to get that lucky and miss them both again. It's a big game for the Bengals but not as big as it is for the Steelers. The Steelers can't lose two in a row to a division team and go to 5-5-1. They may, but they can't.
THE EDGE: As I told you in Pittsburgh at the first game, I liked Cincinnati. I like Pittsburgh in this one. It's not a must win for the Steelers, but it's a damn well better win game. And Mike Tomlin will have his guys ready. I've never heard him talk about a significance of a game this early in the season like he did for this one. STEELERS, 22-19
I think the Steelers are going be a little better prepared than the first game. I think the fact their defense was embarrassed last week against the Chargers is going to be an element. They gave up 533 yards, although they were missing four guys and three of them were their best players other than Cam Heyward in T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden. Everybody but Haden is back.
So they were embarrassed defensively, losing the first game and plus take a little bit of their successful history at Paul Brown Stadium with Ben. And I know what happened last year. I look for them to rebound after getting spanked at Heinz Field.
Until the Raiders game, I saw that Bengals defense start to give up a lot of points. Then all of a sudden everything turned around last week. Joe Mixon had a big game and they looked more like the team we saw earlier in the year as opposed to what we saw the previous two games.
THE EDGE: There are a lot of factors that play into this. They've had success there, they're looking to rebound from last week and they don't like to lose division games. They tend to bounce back. STEELERS, 27-23
It's going to be a nail-biter game. I think the Steelers have more injury problems, though they get T.J. Watt back. I don't think the Bengals are going to be able to do what the Chargers did last week. They had more than 500 yards of offense against the Steelers. Justin Herbert threw for 380 yards and ran for 90. I don't see anything like that. The Bengals didn't have a ton of yards in the first game, but they took advantage of the two interceptions, scored enough points and kind of took the foot off the pedal and played a little bit conservatively in the second half.
Lap made a great point when we talked about this matchup. The Bengals have 40 penalties this year, ten of them came in that first game. They'll need to be a little better where that is concerned, a little more under control. This rivalry always brings out the worst in both teams in terms of their emotions. I talked to C.J. Uzomah about the game and he described it as "controlled hatred," between the two teams. Which I thought is a great expression. To me it's the classic simple formula. Decent balance on offense, have to get at least something out of Joe Mixon in the running game, win the turnover battle, eke out a tight AFC North weather-getting-cold kind of game at Paul Brown Stadium.
THE EDGE: They're the better team. They're playing at home. I don't think game one back in week three was a fluke. I think the Bengals are ascending. The Steelers are slightly declining. They're still good. It's not like they've fallen off the face of the earth. They're 4-1-1 in their last six games, but they are on the slow, gradual way down as Ben Roethlisberger approaches 40 and the Bengals are clearly ascending with Burrow and this young nucleus. BENGALS, 24-21
I think this Bengals team has learned, and it probably started in week three against the Steelers, is how to win other ways than No. 9 carrying them to wins. I think you saw that last week against Las Vegas. They have the blueprint, but as all of these AFC North games, what they usually come down to are turnovers, which team is running the ball best and can control the time of possession. It's pretty cliché, but those are some big keys. Who runs the ball better, who turns over the ball vs. who doesn't. That could determine Sunday's game.
T.J. Watt coming back is such a factor for the Steelers and he's probably going to make some plays Sunday. But the difference is both teams are built to do that, right? Win with defense and with the run game. Which quarterback do you trust more to make that explosive play or not commit that turnover? It may sound funny because Ben Roethlisberger has fewer interceptions over, what? The last nine weeks? Dating back to that week three matchup against the Bengals and Joe Burrow.
But I still trust Burrow more. When you need a play or you need something to happen. And I think that's the difference. The Bengals will have to have an explosive play or two. I don't think it's just going to be like last week against the Raiders, where they run the ball, play defense and sneak out with a win. I think they'll have to find Ja'Marr Chase or Tee Higgins or C.J. Uzomah or one of these guys deep down field at one spot or another.
THE EDGE: I think they get it done. In critical moments, Burrow outplays Ben. I don't necessarily think he's going to go out there and throw for 300 or 350 because it might not be that game. But there is going to be a time in this game where the quarterback needs to make a play and I think Joe Burrow makes that play. BENGALS, 24-22
THE BOTTOM LINE
First of all, how good was the Bengals defense in 2013? A month after the Bengals beat the Patriots holding them to 248 yards, the Pats ripped the Steelers on 610 yards. No one had done that to Pittsburgh until Justin Herbert and the Chargers put up 533 last Sunday night and don't look for that to happen this Sunday at PBS.
Not with All-World pass rusher T.J. Watt and Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick back. Savvy vet cornerback Joe Haden won't play the Bengals for the 19th time in his career. He's out, but not Watt and Fitzpatrick after all three were missing in Los Angeles.
But what the Steelers don't have back is help for brilliant defensive tackle Cam Heyward. Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and Carlos Davis are all on injured reserve. The fans are hammering 234-pound linebacker Devin Bush's lack of beef against the run (but they're not going to sit him on run downs when they traded up ten spots into the top ten to draft him) and the Steelers have fallen to an uncharacteristic 26th against the rush in this seven-game stretch they've allowed an average of 143 yards per game on the ground.
But they're still the Steelers and they can still rise to the occasion. The one club they've shut down on the ground in the last two months is, naturally, Cleveland's No. 1 rush offense. So the Bengals are going to have to do what they did in Vegas last week when they were committed to keeping Raiders pass rusher Maxx Crosby off Joe Burrow with the run.
The defense is going to have to chill red-hot Ben Roethlisberger and hold him to field goals while the running game patiently gets Joe Mixon's footing because they won't win against Watt dropping back Burrow to pass 40 times.
So many Bengals-Steelers games that mean something have taken all day to morph and they've shifted in the fourth quarter recently and in the past. Go back to the 2005 Wild Card Game and the Steelers' 17-0 second half. Or the Wild Card Game ten years later when the Bengals' A.J. McCarron erased a 15-0 fourth-quarter hole before the Jeremy Hill fumble.
In Pittsburgh in 2015, the last time before Sunday the Bengals played the Steelers in November leading them in the AFC North, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and safeties Reggie Nelson and Shawn Williams erased a 10-6 deficit in the fourth quarter. From 2016-2018 in three straight PBS games, Ben staged fourth-quarterback comebacks and game winning drives in overcoming Bengals' leads of 20-15, 20-10 and 21-20.
And go back to the Bengals' 14-point fourth quarter at PBS in 2009 in their 23-20 win they had just 91 yards and three points in a first half Pittsburgh had 248 yards and a 13-3 lead.
So don't leave.
If that was the way Burrow and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor attacked last week's game, you'd have to feel like with Watt and his 7.5 career sacks against the Bengals lurking out there and Fitzpatrick and his career 11 interceptions against everybody roaming the middle, you figure they have to patiently stay away from the big mistake.
But after all's said and done, the thing is probably going to come down to what they do with Big Ben. In his first PBS start 17 years and a week ago, he got a 19-14 win thanks to running back Jerome Bettis' 129 yards. And he hasn't stopped winning at The Paul with a record of 15-3, two in the playoffs. Of those wins, he had to dig deep for seven winning drives to pull them out.
Now, what Big Ben when will he be? The 350-yard flamethrower in the 2014 PBS win, a la the 273 he pumped up in L.A. last week like the Ben of old? Or the beat-up 17-year warrior that threw for just 170 yards in the Bengals' Monday night win at PBS last year? Or the limping 39-year-old who needed 58 passes to get 318 yards two months ago in the loss to the Bengals?
The Bengals have to be counting on Hall-of-Fame Ben showing up, given the magnitude of the game and his history in the building and how good he looked last week.
Then again, after all that, maybe it is the kickers. Next to Ben and Cam Heyward and Joey Porter, Chris Boswell has been the biggest Bengals' menace in the last decade. The man has missed one of 66 kicks against Cincinnati, hitting all 23 extra points and all but one of his 33 field goals. That's 97 percent for a guy hitting a Hall of Fame 89 percent for his career.
And they've been big. Two of the field goals have snapped a fourth-quarter tie and were the winning points. One came at the gun and another one at the gun won a Wild Card Game by 18-16. In a 2017 game, he hit two in the last 1:50 of the first half to break a 14-14 tie in a 29-14 win he accounted for Pittsburgh's last 15 points on five field goals.
He's on fire this season, hitting all six of his shots from 50 yards. But he finally meets a Bengals match in rookie kicker Evan McPherson, back at PBS after last week's record-setting hat trick from 50, making him 6-for-7 on 50s.
So maybe it's who has it late. As it has been so many times in this one.