One act play

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The Bengals and Steelers have played out about every scenario imaginable in their long, colorful series that's as old as the merger and as young as Jeremy Hill and Le'Veon Bell.

Except this one Sunday night (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5) at Heinz Field. In the last game of the NFL season, the 10-4-1 Bengals and the 10-5 Steelers meet to decide a division title. In honor of a an old-fashioned championship game with no strings attached, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable has confined this last regular-season session to the cities' major newspapers and is going with a bulldog edition headlined, "Steelers favored."

The only dissenting voice is supplied by Paul Dehner Jr., of The Cincinnati Enquirer, who points to the momentum building in Hill's running game for a Bengals team that smells, feels, and looks hot at just the right time.

Richard Skinner, Dehner's partner on Elm Street, opts for the Steelers because of the looming presence of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger about to cap a career year.

The princes of the Pittsburgh print media, Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, are in rare agreement and both predict the Steelers to prevail.

Bouchette, the recent Pro Football Hall of Famer, is used to chronicling all-time greats and he's watching another one named James Harrison dip into the Fountain of Youth to revive a flagging defense.

Dulac, who doubles as the paper's golf aficionado, sees no layup when it comes to the Steelers' blistering offense. The Bengals will have to take out the driver to stop Bell on the ground even though the Steelers' dangerous wide receivers lurk.

Let's go around The Table and even in such a heated rivalry, civility still reigns. Visitors first.

DULAC

I look at what happened in the first game and base it on that. There's no question the Bengals are going to have to pick their poison. When you look at the whole game, they didn't stop Le'Veon Bell. Both ways with 235 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns and they didn't stop the receivers and big plays, something they had been doing. The Steelers had two 100-yard receivers.

So all the things the Bengals had been doing, they didn't do. Then in the fourth quarter the fumble changed everything. Whether they just wore them down or blew them out, which ever it was.

The Steelers' two biggest scoring quarters are the second and fourth. They're tops in one and near the top in the other. The fact of the matter is they finish the half strong and that was certainly evident in the Bengals game.

The Bengals have to decide to lay out and stop Le'Veon Bell and say, ok beat us with the pass. If I'm them, that's what I would do. That's what has happened to Bell the last couple of games. That's what the Falcons did and the Chiefs did. The Chiefs took away the check downs to Bell. He had one catch.   That's the big difference. That's where he hurts you. It's kind of like Giovani Bernard and even more so because the numbers are twice his. It's the little dump pass and he goes for eight, 12, 14 yards, whatever it is.

On the other side the Steelers are going to have an advantage with A.J. Green not 100 percent. It's his right arm. Cornerback Ike Taylor's problem was his right shoulder. He couldn't lift it. I can't imagine Green having the game he had last time when it was apparent right away that's where they were going. Right off the bat. Remember, he had seven catches for more than 100 yards in the first half. If he's limited, the Steelers will try to take away running back Jeremy Hill and they will say, 'If you're going to throw it, you're going to throw it. We'll take our chances that way.'

The Steelers defense has slowly gotten better. Last week against the Chiefs they stopped them four times in the red zone. Three field goals and the other time stopping them on fourth down. They made big splash plays. Not necessarily turnovers, but sacks, tackles for loss on third and fourth down in the red zone. They looked like an old Steeler defense doing what they did. They're going to need more of that against Hill and I think he'll be their focus.

My matchup this week is Steelers right outside linebacker James Harrison vs. Hill. Harrison had a monster game last week with stuff that doesn't show up in the stats. Setting the edge. He made two big plays. On one first down and one on fourth down in the run game when they went for it at the 12 at the end of the first half and he stopped them. He had 1.5 sacks, forced another sack to Jason left outside linebacker Jason Worilds. He played unlike a 36-year-old linebacker. He almost looked like the old James Harrison vs. the Bengals. They are so much better in the run game with him setting the edge than other guys that might play.

They're better with Brice McCain and William Gay at cornerback than with Ike Taylor. The fact they had Ike shadow Green the last time, I still can't get over it. They hadn't done it in a year and a half and they did it and the Bengals made them pay for it. It was only Taylor's second game back from the broken arm after he missed eight games. They're better with this group the way they're playing now.

THE EDGE: Steelers, 30-23. I'm 5-10 picking and for a couple of games I made a joke about it because whatever I picked, the opposite happened. Including the game in Cincinnati. I'm going with the Steelers this week because it's a short week for the Bengals and it's a short holiday week. Even though this is a big game for the Bengals and they can clinch a bye and I'm sure Monday night was a big emotional lift for them beating Denver. But the Steelers haven't turned it over in the last three games. Ben's been really good.  With a chance to win the division at home, I've got a little more confidence in them.

BOUCHETTE

The Steelers are playing a little better on defense. They've been terrible most of the year. People knew that was going to happen. They knew the offense was going to have to carry them and for the most part it has.

Now they're playing better defensively. James Harrison has really helped out and the rookie Stephon Tuitt at the other end with Cam Heyward at right end is excelling. Tuitt is playing better. It's taken him a little while to get it. The linebacking play has gotten better, too. Rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier hasn't played much. They've been going with Vince Williams and Sean Spence inside.

Cornerback Ike Taylor is not playing. He covered A.J. Green last time with disastrous results and I don't think he'll play.  Harrison has played the run. He's still good on the pass rush. If you didn't know he was 36 years old, if you didn't know he didn't play here last year, you'd look out there and say, 'This guy's still go it.' He's almost like the James of old. I picked him vs. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth as one of the primary matchups of this game.    

THE EDGE: Steelers, 23-21. I think the last game got a little skewered at the end. That was a tight game the whole way.  I've been flipping coins lately to pick a winner. I'm going with Pittsburgh. At home. Prime time. They do well in prime time. They've won four in a row in prime time.  Ben's playing well; the offense is mixing it up. The defense is playing a little better. I think Pittsburgh is going to pull it out.

DEHNER, JR

It's weird because over the last six weeks the Bengals have played pretty well. Except for one six-minute stretch against Pittsburgh, that's pretty much all they've allowed. But that's what top offensive football does. That's what Pittsburgh does. You've got to concede you might have to win a shootout out with them. That's just the way their offense is.

You can tell the Bengals story the rest of the way out. How good is the running game going to be? How are they going to be in the trenches? If they can beat Denver, the No. 2 rushing defense, and stop the run as well…Pittsburgh can still gouge you, but I think you can control the clock enough and be consistent enough scoring to win.

If A.J. is not at full strength, the threat of taking the top off lessens and it's a lot easier for them to put more in the box against Hill. You can only do the smoke and mirrors offense for so long. You can only throw so many screens, so many dunks. Eventually you're going to have to prove you go over the top. They proved that they can the last time with A.J. going for 224 yards.

There have been times they've been able to open it up and Andy's played well and the passing game has been good. When Green was out, Mohamed Sanu was good. With Green back, he's been good. But I don't think we've seen Green, Sanu, and Hill all working together. If they can start doing that, you can see the potential.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 31-28.  I think they do it. I think they've got a lot of good momentum going and I do think there was a bit of flukiness to the first game against Pittsburgh the way things unraveled. I've kept waiting for this team to prove to me they could win the big game and that they've taken a step. With what they did on Monday, I think that was the big step they needed. Some of their biggest wins have been at Pittsburgh. It's been kind of their spot to throw their flag in the ground. I think they'll have to score quite a bit because Pittsburgh is going to score on you. I think they've turned the corner.

SKINNER

You go back to the last game, it was a like a prize fight. I think the Bengals would have technically won because they won three of the four quarters. The problem was they got obliterated in the last quarter.

If you're the Bengals, that's what you have to take away from it. For the last six games, you've played really good football other than two quarters, the third against Denver and fourth vs. Pittsburgh. If you limit a double-digit quarter in a game like this, you should have a pretty good chance.

You look at the way Bell ran in Cincinnati and you hear about his patience, you see it some on TV, but until you see it in person, you really don't understand what he does and how good he is doing it. You ask people about how you stop it. Clog up the gaps; make sure you've got somebody on the back side. I'm sure that was the plan the last time and they still weren't able to do it.

They've got to stop Bell because while Ben can win games gun-slinging it, he's a lot better when he throws down the field off play action. You saw that on the 94-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant. Everybody jumped up for the run, the corners are in man, one of the corners gets run by and it's a 94-yard TD. Bell is just that good. I think the defense got worn down a few times in the fourth quarter.

THE EDGE: Steelers, 27-20. It's hard not to take Pittsburgh. They are probably the better team personnel-wise. They have fewer question marks. There's A.J. Green against Antonio Brown. There's Le'Veon Bell against Jeremy Hill. There's Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton's not Ben Roethlisberger. I've picked the Bengals for our paper and on video to win a lot of weeks in a row in different circumstances. I just think Pittsburgh, especially on the short week, is awful tough. Roethlisberger has had such a good year. This point in their careers is when quarterbacks start to go to the other side. But he's put up career numbers in completion percentage, yards, he's two touchdowns shy of a career high. He's been outstanding and it's hard to think he won't be outstanding with the division on the line.

BOUCHETTE

The Steelers are playing a little better on defense. They've been terrible most of the year. People knew that was going to happen. They knew the offense was going to have to carry them and for the most part it has.

Now they're playing better defensively. James Harrison has really helped out and the rookie Stephon Tuitt at the other end with Cam Heyward at right end. Tuitt is playing better. It's taken him a little while to get it. The linebacking play has gotten better, too. Rookie Ryan Shazier hasn't played much. They've been going with Vince Williams and Shaun Spence.

Cornerback Ike Taylor is not playing. He covered A.J. Green last time with disastrous results and I don't think he'll play.  Harrison has played the run. He's still good on the pass rush. If you didn't know he was 36 years old, if you didn't know he didn't play here last year, you'd look out there and say, 'This guy's still go it.' He's almost like the James of old. I picked him vs. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth as one of the primary matchups of this game.    

THE EDGE: Steelers, 23-21. I think the last game got a little skewered at the end. That was a tight game the whole way.  I've been flipping coins lately to pick a winner. I'm going with Pittsburgh. At home. Prime time. They do well in prime time. They've won four in a row in prime time.  Ben's playing well; the offense is mixing it up. The defense is playing a little better. I think Pittsburgh is going to pull it out.

THE BOTTOM LINE

We have seen Paul Brown and Chuck Noll coach the mentor-student script. We saw Kenny Anderson's acumen challenge Terry Bradshaw's grit. We saw Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh prance on the Steelers' Terrible Towel, former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen's helmet blow up Carson Palmer's knee on the second snap of the playoffs, Mike Zimmer pull off a Bengals division sweep in the Battle of 18-12, and Bengals safety Reggie Nelson pick off Ben Roethlisberger for a Wild Card berth.

But we've never seen this.

Bengals-Steelers in the last game for a division title.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a former Bengals head coach and one of current head Marvin Lewis' mentors, has a hot unit. So does Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who seems to have an endless bag of smoke and mirrors to combat every injury.

On Monday night, despite not having 23 receiving touchdowns from last season, the Bengals came up with their biggest win since a 13-10 victory in Pittsburgh two years ago when rookie running back Jeremy Hill offered 147 of 207 rushing yards in a 37-28 victory over Denver.

But even before Green hurt his right bicep on the fourth snap of the game, the Bengals were having trouble replicating his long-ball success against the Steelers back on Dec. 7, when his 224 yards weren't enough in a 42-21 loss.

Since then, the longest pass quarterback Andy Dalton has completed to a wide receiver is a 16-yarder to wide receiver Brandon Tate. On Monday, three of Dalton's 17 completions went to wide receivers.

LeBeau will take that. His secondary, particularly his cornerbacks, had no answer for Green three weeks ago, but if he's less than 100 percent, or if Dalton and Green are off the mark like they were in the win in Cleveland, then the Steelers can load the box against Hill and dare Dalton to beat them with the pass. He's 2-5 against Pittsburgh and his two December road losses have come at Heinz.

Now, Jackson has weapons to keep LeBeau at bay. The Steelers backers are fast but young and will have to match up with running back Giovani Bernard. When he's been asked to in absence of Green, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu has delivered deep. When Hill carries at least 13 times, the Bengals are 7-0.

We'll have to see what kind of shape Green is in, but Jackson made it very clear on Monday night with the season on the line he's not going to throw the ball around the yard. Especially if Green isn't right.

 This is a game for Hill, Bernard, and the offensive line. Heck, this is a season for Hill, Bernard, and the offensive line. The idea isn't for the Bengals to win a shootout with the NFL's second best offense, but for their offense to keep it from becoming a shootout. That's where the Bengals were headed with a 21-20 lead early in the fourth quarter back on Dec. 7 before Dalton's fumbled pitch.

Just like he was last year for the Bengals, Harrison is a load against the run. He didn't play against the Bengals the first time this season, but while the Bengals have to deal with him, he has to deal with the Bengals' array of pulling and power plays that have been unveiled on a more frequent level the past two weeks. Plus, the 6-0 Harrison has struggled in the past against left tackle Andrew Whitworth's 6-7 bulk and Whitworth is pitching a sack-less streak this season. It should be a game between two brilliant pros.

The Bengals have been excellent against the run for the last six games except, of course, for ten minutes against Bell in the Steelers' 25-point fourth quarter. And when they couldn't stop the run, Roethlisberger showed you don't have to be an artist in play-action to take advantage. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant flat out ran by cornerback Leon Hall for a 94-yard TD that was the second longest scoring pass ever against the Bengals, all made possible by the run.

Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown went for 117 yards the last time but, except for a 32-yard play, they did a good job keeping him in front of them, although he did have success on third down with slants. According to ProFootballFocus.com, cornerback Terence Newman gave up 58 of Brown's yards, but he hasn't practiced at all this week because of the flu. That could mean Dre Kirkpatrick gets the nod after his two-interception game against Denver and he held his own against another 1,000-yard receiver in Denver's Demaryius Thomas.    

 On Monday the Bengals came into the Denver game with a decided edge in special teams, particularly their return teams against the Broncos' coverage teams, and it won the game for them with an average drive start of their own 39 compared to Denver's 24. Indeed, their only long TD drive, if you want to call it that, was Hill's 85-yard TD run. Between four interceptions and 206 kick and punt return yards, the Bengals dominated field position.

The Steelers, who haven't turned it over this month, have more competent cover teams with both ranked No. 13. But they still have to contend with the Bengals' No. 5 punt return team and their No. 2 kick return team, units that are playing with high confidence.

When the Bengals have won games with a lot on the line in Pittsburgh _ a division sweep in 2009 and a playoff berth in 2012 – they've pulled it off playing a mistake-free-close-to-the-vest-pounding-the-clock game.

That has to be the formula Sunday.

No shootouts allowed.

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