The 5-5 Bengals and 6-4 Steelers are staring at Sunday's Wild Wild Card Game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) that has turned Paycor Stadium into a roaring vat of questions with Bengals quarterback Jake Browning making his first NFL start in the wake of Joe Burrow's season-ending wrist injury and Steelers quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan calling his first game for head coach Mike Tomlin after the firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
So typical of this series. Just when you think you've got it figured out …
Like three years ago, when Bengals quarterback Ryan Finley, now out of the league, got his lone win of four NFL starts by completing just seven passes against Ben Roethlisberger's AFC North champion Steelers on a Monday night at Paycor.
"I saw it, too," said slot cornerback Mike Hilton Friday, who was playing for the Steelers then. "Hey, anything is possible. We're confident in Jake and he's a confident dude. We're excited to see how he plays."
A lot of uncertainty, but there is never a question about how the Steelers always seem to try and get back on track when things go awry. They always seem to turn to the running game.
Tomlin has loaded up on the run against Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, just like before them, Steelers Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Cowher pounded the run against Marvin Lewis. Just like before them, Chuck Noll geared up the run against his old coach, Bengals founder Paul Brown.
"We expect them to come in here and do try to do what they've had success doing," said Hilton, who has played for both Taylor and Tomlin. "Run the football and play great defense. We have to find a way to put our offense on short fields. They've been running well the last four or five games. We've had some issues dealing with the run. It's an opportunity to go out there dominate and get back on track, especially in the run game."
Although Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett is rated the 27th passer in the league and the Steelers have been outgained in every game, running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren have steered them to three straight games of at least 160 yards on the ground and into the thick of the playoff hunt with the NFL's best turnover differential while the Bengals have allowed 345 rushing yards in the last two games combined.
"It started with, as I've been saying too many times this year, a cutback run, said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo of the Ravens' 157-yard night that featured a three-linebacker look on early downs with Akeem Davis-Gaither back in the lineup for the first time in a month.
"We blitzed Akeem and that kind of got us on our heels a little bit. That was 20-something yards. And then we had another 25-yarder that really just shouldn't have been, from a crack replace situation again. You count it for 40 yards there and Lamar (Jackson) scrambled a little bit and next thing you know, there's too many rushing yards. Can't keep saying the same things."
Middle linebacker Logan Wilson makes it sound so easy to fix, but that is exactly what Hilton and Anarumo are saying, too. "Little things," Hilton says. "It's probably one of our worst tackling seasons."
"Contest," Anarumo says.
"We're just focused on the present and learning from those mistakes made in the past," Wilson said this week. "Have good gap integrity, stay in your gap, stay in your fit. Let the guys around you do their job. Just do your part, 1/11th on each and every play."
SAM BACK: The one common denominator missing from the last two games is left end Sam Hubbard, considered one of the best run defenders on the edge in the league. No defensive end has more tackles since 2018. The runner-up is also going to be here Sunday in the person of Steelers six-time Pro Bowler Cam Heyward, Hubbard's fellow Buckeye.
But Hubbard looks ready to return Sunday after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. Hubbard went full Friday for the first time since he went on the injury report, and Taylor called him good to go."
"It's enormous," Anarumo said. "We all know what he can do in the pass rush game, but he's also one of the best run defenders we have in the league, and it statistically has been proven. Just his overall calming ability in the huddle, on the line of scrimmage as the offense is coming out, just talking, communicating, it's just different. It's just different and it comes with his experience knowing the system inside and out. And who he is as a player."
TEE, TAYLOR-BRITT OUT: Wide receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) is going to miss his third straight game and Cam Taylor-Britt (quad) his first one of a season he has secured the job of No. 1 cornerback who travels with the best receiver.
Taylor-Britt is also a fierce run defender on a day they need plenty of them. Chidobe Awuzie, the man Taylor-Britt has supplanted, most likely gets the start after rookie DJ Turner has started the last six games as Awuzie has dealt with his ACL rehab and a back issue.
In the last two games, the Bengals have allowed 13 pass plays of at least 20 yards, but Taylor and Anarumo aren't going to put the sole blame on the youth of the secondary that has Turner, a second-year safety in Dax Hill and a rookie in Jordan Battle taking over the other safety after playing a career-high 55 snaps in Baltimore.
Anarumo goes back to the Nov. 12 Houston game, where wide receiver Noah Brown got most of his 172 yards while quarterback C.J. Stroud extended plays.
"The chunk yard plays to (Brown), we're just not finding him when the quarterback scrambles, 'Where's my guy?' That accounted for over 150 yards. Some crack replace. Simple issues that led to long, explosive runs. I just think it's little things that become huge things when you're not hitting on all cylinders."
DJ ASSIGNMENT: For the most part, the Bengals love how their second-rounder Turner has been playing.
"How he's been able to turn his head and play the ball has helped him," Hilton said "He's showed people he's been able to handle the mental part of it with all the checks and all our in-game corrections. He's definitely been able to adapt to it."
Anarumo must overall be happy because he doesn't suffer rookies and he has said some nice things about Turner's 4.2-second 40 speed.
But on the third play of the Baltimore game, Turner allowed a 33-yard pass to another rookie, Ravens wide receiver Zay Flowers, on a play emblematic of what Anarumo said the Bengals have been allowing the last two games. He used it as a teaching moment.
"Just gave him too much space and cushion out there and didn't contest it at all at the line of scrimmage," Anarumo said. "As I told him at halftime or on the sideline, I said, 'Listen, they're going to catch the ball, but it can't be catch-and-run. It has to be catch-and-tackle and there's too many of those happening. He's a young guy who unfortunately will give some of them up. I don't want him to give up anything, trust me. Let's make them catch and tackle and it's 12 yards instead of 33, and now the field turns over and then the next thing you know, they're in the end zone."
LOU ON JAKE: One of the many things Browning has going for him Sunday (his mobility, his knowledge of the system, the crowd) is that he's been on this team for three seasons, knows everybody, and they're rallying around him.
Take Anarumo, who has watched Browning come in on his days off to help the secondary
"He's in there with them kind of deciphering what the offense is trying to do. He'll tell me, 'Hey, I could see this blitz coming, or I couldn't see the blitz coming during practice.' He's a smart player," Anarumo said. "He's fearless. I think we're all ready to rally behind Jake. That's the good news. He doesn't have to be there on a Tuesday morning on his off day trying to help the team and he's been there for two years. He's a great guy and we're going to do all we can to rally around him and get a win."
Now that he's the starter, the Tuesday routine has changed.
"The idea that when I was in a backup role was, 'What's the best use of my time to help us win?'" Browning said this week. "When I was in a backup role I felt like going in there and helping them out was big and now it's more so me watching the Steelers defense and meeting with (center) Ted (Karras) or getting a head start on the run game or whatever that is. You're always trying to find the best use of your time just like any other job. That's an example of one of the adjustments."