The 8-6 Bengals go to 7-7 Pittsburgh Saturday (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) for a game eerily similar to the one they played 11 years to the day on the same field.
On Dec. 23, 2012, the Bengals won on their last play of the game at Acrisure Stadium and went to the playoffs The Steelers lost and went home and it's got that same kind of feel as the Bengals play their first game ever without the Pro Bowl tandem of quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
But while Burrow backup Jake Browning isn't perceived as the generational talent like those two guys, his numbers are after he bounced back from last month's 16-10 loss to the Steelers in his first NFL start.
According to the NFL, Browning's 109.3 passer rating as a starter is the fifth-best over the last 30 seasons in a player's first four career starts. And his 76 completion percentage trails only Chad Pennington (76.9) for the first four career starts since 1950.
The Bengals and Browning have indicated this week that they've taken note of that Nov. 26 game. Browning has talked about how he held the ball too long on some third downs (where the Bengals were 2-for-10) on a day they had the ball for just 41 snaps and had a historically low 25 rushing yards on 11 attempts. They had Chase that day, but not wide receiver Tee Higgins, and they've got Higgins Saturday coming off his best game of the season with all two touchdowns, four catches, and 61 yards coming in the fourth quarter.
"We did not perform well on third down. I mean we only had like 40 some plays in that game, so we didn't get a lot of chances because we didn't convert and we had some manageable ones that we didn't convert," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan this week. "Playing different on third down, being better on third down will help us. Without giving too much away and how we're going to play differently, there's some things in the run game we can do better and different than we did and I think that'll help.
"But at the end of the day, you go into the AFC North games, in general, and always against Pittsburgh, if you can win the line of scrimmage and control the front, you're going to have a chance to win. We didn't do a good enough job in the run game to give ourselves a chance to have some more success and not let those pass rushers get grueling."
Since that day, the Bengals have been a lot better on third down (17-for-38) and more prolific running the ball, averaging 28 rushes and 116 yards per game in the three-game winning streak as they look at ways of lessening the impact of NFL sack leader T.J. Watt, he of the two sacks and forced fumble the last time they met.
Steelers Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick won't play Saturday, like last month. Callahan doesn't anticipate much of a different look. The Bengals have a blueprint to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh without Chase. They did it last year, 37-30, when Burrow threw for 355 yards and Higgins grabbed 148 of them while running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine caught 94 more in a game the Bengals had three different receivers each with 42 yards.
(Mixon left halfway through that game with an injury and Perine is playing in Denver, but Mixon is healthy and rookie running back Chase Brown has 217 yards from scrimmage in the last three games.)
And, the Bengals are coming off a game in which they had nine players with at least two catches for the first time in their history, according to Pro Football Network.
"I think Tee still garners quite a bit of respect. So how they played when we just have Ja'Marr or just Tee, I think you see similar things," Callahan said. "Tee's a little bit of a different style. He doesn't do in the backfield stuff like Ja'Marr does. He can play inside some, but he doesn't do all the things that Ja'Marr does. So generally not much difference.
"They're going to try to find their way to double them or cloud them or do those things when they can. We'll move them or we can move them. But he does scare people. I mean when you see him in pregame, you watch all their scouts on the sideline, all their personnel people, they just stare at him because he's so big, he's so fast. So he puts fear in people."
One player who didn't have a catch last Saturday but had a big day in Pittsburgh last year is wide receiver Trenton Irwin. One of those three catches for 42 yards went for his first NFL touchdown. Irwin took 31 snaps last month against the Steelers with Higgins out (he had one catch for 25 yards), but since Higgins has returned, Irwin has had 37 plays with a season-low 10 last week.
One thing the Bengals didn't have last year that they have now is two rookie receivers who are playing, Andrei Iosivas and Charlie Jones.
"It'll be a mix. We'll try to highlight those guys' skills, find things that they both can bring and help us win," Callahan said. "Andrei's played well given his opportunities. Trenton's shown that he's reliable and consistent and Charlie's played a little bit too. They'll all have a helmet on game day. We'll find a way to use them."
RE-INFORCING THE FRONT: With Bengals Pro Bowl-worthy nose tackle DJ Reader (quad) out for the year and the Steelers' beleaguered offense turning to third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph with a leash maybe shorter than the reindeer's, everyone knows Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin is leering downhill at the Cincinnati front with every intention of running the ball.
That means it could be the third NFL game and first this season for The Pride of Pembroke (North Carolina), practice squad defensive tackle Domenique Davis. Davis has been immense in the last two preseasons and has been getting ready in his own way if called.
Davis has had no problem hitting up Reader for advice down through the years, or other guys like B.J. Hill, and Josh Tupou. Defensive line coach Marion Hobby has also been on the receiving end of questions.
"Every week I prepare like I'm playing," Davis said this week. "Mental reps. Watching film. Talking to guys who play my position. DJ. Josh. B.J. I always ask the questions and they talk to me. I'm well-prepared."
It's not exactly Browning vs. the Vikings, but Davis has a story, too. A few days before signing with the Bengals in the first week of the 2022 training camp, Davis worked out for the Steelers. Davis said they told him they liked him but needed someone with more experience. A few days later they called looking to bring him back, but Davis was already a Bengal. Now he may be coming back to play against them for a few snaps if he's promoted.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The Bengals have won nine straight games in December, the longest streak in the NFL ….
It's also the longest streak in team history, eclipsing the streak of six started by Jeff Blake and ended by Boomer Esiason in the Decembers of 1996 and 1997 …
Mixon has the most rush yards by a player this season without a 100-yard game (815) and the Steelers' Najee Harris is second with 723. Mixon has two 100-yarders against the Steelers, one in Pittsburgh. The one in Cincy was a career-high 165 yards two years ago …