When the clock strikes midnight in Pittsburgh after their 100th showdown with the Steelers on Monday night (8:15 p.m.-ESPN, Cincinnati's Channel 5), the Bengals hope they've barged into October and the AFC North by purging the sins of September with a complete game at Heinz Field.
The witching hour has come early for the Bengals.com Media Roundtable, staffed by veteran beat reporters on both sides of the ball. There's the Gem City connection with The Dayton Daily News' Laurel Pfahler joined by her predecessor at the newspaper, Jay Morrison, now covering the Bengals for The Athletic.
In Pittsburgh, they may not have Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell. But they still have Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac, the venerable Steelers beat duo from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. They have been broken up like the Yankees and General Motors. But they still cover the Steelers like a Steel Curtain with Dulac remaining at the paper and Bouchette becoming one of free agency's big prizes in the offseason when he signed on with The Athletic as a senior writer.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet in that order:
You have to feel better about this one than you would in the past. Both teams winless. The Steelers are obviously a lot different without Big Ben and that's huge for the Bengals. The Steelers have history on their side and the Bengals haven't done great in prime time. That goes against them. But this just feels like a more winnable game this time because of what's going on in Pittsburgh without the playmakers the Steelers have had in the past.
THE EDGE: The Bengals have been close. I know the Steelers played the 49ers closer than the Bengals did and the Steelers played the Seahawks close like the Bengals did. But if they're going to beat the Steelers, this is probably the best time to do it. BENGALS, 28-21
I can't see them losing to the Bengals, but I can see them losing to the Bengals. Whoever loses this game is in for a long season. Not having Ben is the tip of the problem. They were struggling with Ben. As much as they needed to, as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin used the word, cleanse themselves of Antonio Brown, they miss him.
Their receivers are not getting open. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a good No. 2 wide receiver; so far he's not a good No. 1. The guys they signed as free agents are not working out. Donte Moncrief is one of them. They benched him. He was going to be their starter. Dropped five passes the first two games. Benched midway through the second game and didn't even dress last week and he may not dress this week.
They're not running it well and not running it enough and now with Mason in there teams are saying we're not going to let the running game beat us, we'll let the new quarterback beat us, and they haven't been able to do it yet and I'm not putting the blame on him totally. It goes on the receivers. It goes on the coordinators, too. They're not putting them in good positions to win.
The loss of offensive line coach Mike Munchak was a big loss in this way and anybody who says otherwise is crazy. Because when they signed him as line coach many people in that organization said it was their best signing of the offseason. Now when he left they're saying the other guy can handle it. He was big in the run game coordinating and that's one of the things that isn't working right.
THE EDGE: The Steelers are a better team than what they've done. They've lost two close games to two good teams. I think their defense is better than what it's showed. They'll find a way to win this game. If they don't, the season's over. STEELERS, 24-20
The one thing the Steelers have had problems with, stopping the run, is the one thing the Bengals do terribly. If the Steelers can't stop the run against the Bengals than they're worse than everyone thinks. The Steelers have to be a little more physical up front. They were trying to run around blocks instead of taking on blocks and keeping those big guys off their second-level guys.
Mason Rudolph is going to get better each game. Look, I'm not expecting an offensive show. Back when the Steelers struggled before, they had Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell. Even when they were 0-4, you knew eventually they were going to snap out of it. Well, you really don't know that with this team.
Their defense is better. They have been taking the ball away. The offense is only going to get better because they have some good young players. They've been playing terribly and I don't see them continuing like that. I think each week they'll get better.
THE EDGE: All that said, I like the Steelers here. I know the Bengals have had a couple of near misses, but so have the Steelers. They could have beat Seattle, they didn't. They could have beat San Francisco, they didn't. You are what your record says you are and they're a 0-3 team. But I like them back home. They still have a lot of veterans. STEELERS, 20-16.
I see it being a really sloppy, messy, close game that you would expect from two 0-3 teams. I think there are going to be multiple turnovers by each team and a lot of punts and it's going to come down to a field goal one way or the other. It depends who has the ball and if the kicker can make the field goal or not.
You still have the coaching staff trying to find their footing here. And you've got a Steelers team trying to settle in with a new quarterback and a brand new safety, although Minkah Fitzpatrick played incredible last week. I can't see it being a clean, crisp game on either side.
First down is key for the Bengals. Running back Joe Mixon doesn't have to be incredible. If he can just get four or five yards on first down and get them in second and manageable where this offense can do what it does. Hit passes off play-action and be unpredictable. Last week in Buffalo they never could get into any rhythm. They couldn't do anything on first down. Pittsburgh doesn't usually let you run the ball, so it's not going to be easy to line up and commit to slamming Mixon up in there. But if they can get him involved with some screen passes and mix in some early runs. Three, four, five yards. Just make second down manageable. I think that's the key to getting this offense rolling and letting them find a rhythm.
This kind of game would favor the Bengals because usually when they beat the Steelers it's one of those low-scoring, super close games, which I think it will be. I just have a hard time giving a nod to this team based on losing eight straight to the Steelers.
THE EDGE: I've said it to you in these articles before, never bet against the trend. You can't say their due. You have to say they've lost eight straight and it's probably going to be nine. STEELERS, 17-16
THE BOTTOM LINE
Look, the Steelers are always dangerous with the players and competitors they have in both trenches. DeCastro. Pouncey. Tuitt. Heyward. These guys are terrific. They're as big a reason for the eight-game winning streak as is Big Ben.
But they can't throw it and catch it. And that's a matchup the Bengals have to love with what veterans like left end Carlos Dunlap believe is their most multiple defensive looks since the days of Mike Zimmer.
In Mason Rudolph they go against a quarterback that has made just one NFL start. It should be the kind of one-dimensional game that favors the Bengals' best position group, their defensive line. Clearly they'll dare Rudolph to beat them by clogging the run and showing him those variety of looks ranging from the five-man line to the 4-3 to the 5-2 to the 3-4. It would seem to be a great chance to cure their inconsistencies defending the run.
And while the suspicion is the Steelers traded up in front of the Bengals to get Rudolph in '18 and linebacker Devin Bush this year, this is a game for cornerback William Jackson III to remind the Steelers why they were so disappointed when he didn't fall to them with the next pick in the 2016 draft. Without tight end Vance McDonald (and, of course, A.B.), the Steelers are shy on targets for Rudolph and you'd think that will let them focus on Smith-Schuster (doesn't he remind you of T.J. Houshmandzadeh?), who does have a 76-yard TD from Rudolph.
But the long game looks to belong to the Bengals and this is another matchup head coach Zac Taylor has to like. For about as long as he's been alive (36 years), the Steelers have played a pretty similar defensive style and while it's given the Bengals more fits than plays, Bengals quarterbacks down through the years have gone deep on the Steelers.
Boomer Esiason made a living out of it in the late '80s. Jeff Blake shot them down with a couple of vintage moon balls on prime time in '95. Jon Kitna threw for 401 yards against them in '01 and beat them deep to tight end Matt Schobel in '03 on an 18-yarder with 13 seconds left. The Steelers never really figured out Carson Palmer to Chris Henry and when A.J. Green got behind them with 1:50 left in the '15 Wild Card Game (The Brawl in the Paul) for a 25-yard TD, it nearly put A.J. McCarron on Cincinnati's sports Mt. Rushmore.
(Just go back to the last Bengals-Steelers Monday Nighter two years ago at The Paul. In the middle of the third quarter it looked like the Bengals delivered the knock-out blow when they went up 24-10 on Andy Dalton's 61-yard TD bomb to Green, a play negated by a hold on running back Giovani Bernard and was the defining moment in Pittsburgh's 23-20 win at the gun. That's the game Mixon had 34 yards on seven carries before leaving with an injury)
The Steelers just made a major upgrade in the secondary with the trade for the do-it all Minkah Fitzpatrick, but has he been there long enough to get Pittsburgh trending in the right direction? Opposing QBs have a 116.3 passer rating against the Steelers while racking up 15 passes of at least 20 yards. Meanwhile, the Bengals have 14 of that length to go with their three pass plays of at least 40 yards, two by wide receiver John Ross and one by wide receiver Tyler Boyd. The Steelers have allowed two of at least 40.
No question that running back Joe Mixon and his 6.6 career yards per carry against the Steelers hold the key if the Bengals get him going like they have against them. Play-action is a needed panacea for Minkah. But look for Ross and Boyd to be the key beneficiaries deep.
And if you're looking for a guy, look for Boyd. He's got a flair for the dramatic. The last play of '17. Getting his 1,000 yard right before he got hurt last season on a drive he scored the TD. Now he's playing in his college stadium and his hometown on Monday night.
That's one of just a few matchups the Bengals have to like.