The Bengals have played many big ones in head coach Marvin Lewis's 10 seasons, but not many signature games where the calendar, the opponent and the standings all click into karma's cylinders to give a seminal moment in the evolution of a roster.
For the Bengals of wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton, that game comes Sunday at Heinz Field (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Dalton's 31st NFL start in a title fight against their arch-rival Steelers when a win gives the Bengals what Boomer Esiason and Carson Palmer never delivered:
Back-to-back playoff seasons.
The Bengals.com media roundtable comes down on it as close as the records with the 8-6 Bengals looking for their first victory over the 7-7 Steelers in three years. If Pittsburgh has a slight advantage it's because the Steelers are at home.
Merril Hoge, the former Steelers running back who has become ESPN's baron of the blackboard, gives the Xs and Os to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. So does Clark Judge of CBSSports.com, citing Cincinnati's struggles on offense lately, but both call it a field-goal game.
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham makes it even closer than that. A coin flip, he says, in "a battle royale" that may conjure up the War of 18-12 in '09 at Heinz that yielded no touchdowns from scrimmage in a Cincinnati victory.
Yet there is much angst in Pittsburgh, as reflected by estimable Post-Gazette reporter Gerry Dulac's take. With the Steelers losing four of the last five and Big Ben shouldering it all on his dinged shoulder, Dulac sees a tight Bengals victory that knocks the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Let's go around the table.
Both offensive lines struggled in their last game. The Steelers couldn't block the blitz up the A gap and they gave up a lot of pressure late in that Dallas game. I'm sure that wasn't lost on Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. In that matchup you'd have to give the edge to the Bengals defensive front, which has been impressive all year and the Steelers have had all sorts of injuries and changes along their offensive line.
But the Bengals didn't protect the passer very well at all in Philadelphia and had a lot of problems dealing with twists. I have to believe Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is looking at all that. Both teams have to do a better job of protecting the quarterback.
Because it comes down to the offenses. Big Ben vs. Andy Dalton and I've got to go with Roethlisberger. Andy hasn't played well the last couple of weeks. He's missed some throws, hasn't seen some open receivers and doesn't look like he's playing with the same confidence he had earlier in the season. And they're still trying to find a receiver to go with A.J. Green.
Ben has been in a lot of these games and has come up big. I've got a lot of respect for Andy and I think he is and will become a very good quarterback that you can win with. But in a game like this, Ben has accomplished so much in his career that you have to go with him.
THE EDGE: Steelers by three. It's that close. Two pretty even teams. Good defenses. Each offense has some playmakers. I can see Ben making a big play late in the game.
I don't see as many big plays as there was in the first game. Every yard is vital. You don't want negative plays. You don't want turnovers. Every possession is instrumental. Make every possession end in a kick. You can't give either team an extra possession. It's going to be a battle royale. A 20-17 type game.
The Bengals had been playing better offensively up until a few weeks ago. Andy in that four-game winning streak was as good as anybody. Now he seems to be a little hesitant in his play. Doesn't want to let it rip like he was. I don't know why. I think he's going to have to let it rip because No. 7 is going to let it rip. He might be the greatest improviser I've ever seen.
Not with his feet like RGIII or Michel Vick. He doesn't just try to check it down. He tries to gash you at the second, third level of the defense. That's a potential area where the Bengals are vulnerable. The big play. With Ben, you can't have a clock in your head if you're a defensive lineman or in the secondary. He can do what he did against Dallas and hold the ball for nine seconds. It's orchestrated. Their receivers practice this stuff. It's controlled chaos. When he creates plays, they're better than the ones called. He's bigger than most everybody but the D-tackles. It's like tackling a lineman in the pocket.
The Bengals lost that first game because they didn't have the ball. The Steelers took 67 snaps and the Bengals took 49, 15 on their first drive, so Pittsburgh had the ball for an extra quarter. I was encouraged by that first drive. Nine runs for 49 yards. BenJarvus Green-Ellis converted the fourth-and-one and they went bang, bang, bang. Five, six, five. They kind of got away from that. I think they have to do a better job controlling the ball.
Both teams have played better since then. I'm going to be interested to see what LeBeau does with a wounded secondary and how much pressure he brings. He may try to pressure a little more, maybe he puts more in coverage. LeBeau doesn't change. His defenses are as disciplined as I've ever seen. His players are where they're always supposed to be.
THE EDGE: Even. Pittsburgh is vulnerable as they've been, but I thought that the last time. To me it's a coin flip. Pittsburgh may have a slight advantage being home, but the Bengals play so well on the road, I think it's a coin flip. That kind of game.
To use a Mike Tomlin expression, the Steelers "body of work" doesn't lead anyone to believe they can win the next two games and go to the playoffs. Their best moments have been beating the Bengals, Baltimore and the Giants on the road, but there's been more bad and good for a team that just doesn't seem to have the "it" factor or intangible they've always had.
The Steelers secondary is obviously going to be a bigger factor than it was the last time they played with cornerback Ike Taylor out. But the amazing thing about this defense is that it's No. 1 in the NFL and they don't take the ball away or sack the quarterback. You'd think the No. 1 defense would be based on either larceny or sacks and they've got neither. But they lead the NFL in allowing the fewest passes of 40 and 20 yards. That's LeBeau's mantra: nothing over the head and tackle the ball. And they did it with strong safety Troy Polamalu out for nine games and Taylor out the last two. Polamalu's back, but both starting corners for Sunday, Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen, are banged up.
(Sack ace) James Harrison missed the first three games with a knee injury and in the last three games he's started to look like his old self. He just can't collapse the pocket the way he used to because of his knee injury. He can pressure, but not like he used to, and he knows it. The other outside backer, LaMarr Woodley, played last Sunday after missing the last two games and hasn't been a factor. They're just not getting a rush.
The wide receivers are starting to make some plays. Mike Wallace was like a possession receiver the first half the season. But the last two weeks he's got a 40-yard touchdown catch and last week in Dallas he had a 60-yard catch down to the 1. Antonio Brown had been hurt, but he's been back for three games and last week in Dallas he looked like his old self with eight catches.
They've had a lot of injuries on the offensive line, but they're starting to get it together and played well last Sunday except for the last two series. Their first-round pick, David DeCastro, is now playing at right guard and they moved Ramon Foster, who has started all the games, to left guard. They like the rookie right tackle, Kelvin Beachum, playing in place of the other rookie right tackle, Mike Adams. He doesn't block the run like Adams, but he's a better pass protector and that probably works out better against Cincinnati's Carlos Dunlap.
I look for the Steelers to use running back Rashard Mendenhall more this week. He's back off suspension, but I also think you'll see Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, and you'll get Chris Rainey in some of those specialty speed packages.
They've had some big returns on special teams from Rainey and Antonio Brown. Rainey's got a 68-yard kick return, Sanders has a 63-yard punt return and the Steelers have had punt or kick returns of 78, 72 and 45 negated by penalty. And the offense has yet to convert off a big return.
The kicker, Shaun Suisham, has been great. He's missed just one field goal and they shouldn't have tried it in Tennessee with the wind and it was a 54-yarder.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-21. The Steelers have beaten the Bengals 10 of the last 12 times and the Browns 16 of the last 18. But I don't see them making the playoffs winning the last two games. The bigger numbers to me are the Bengals have won five of the last six and the Steelers have lost four of the last five.
This has been a tough place for the Bengals to win and I think the Steelers have that sense of urgency.
Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been very accurate since he's been back from his shoulder injury. But this is his third week back and I think they've aired it out as far as philosophy on offense and I think they pull together the next two and get in the playoffs.
What's killing them is turnovers. I expect them to run the ball more and try to slow down the Bengals pass rush. They've got Mendenhall back. Dwyer's been effective. Redman's been solid. They're calling to run the ball more and I think they will.
I covered the Bengals game in Philadelphia and it was one of the worst games I'd seen until the Jets-Titans last Monday night. There's some bad football out there.
I was surprised the way Dalton played. I've talked to some people who think this is going to be a better matchup for him. Just because the way the Eagles played the wide receivers. I know there's a feeling he can take advantage of the Steelers secondary and he can make some big hits outside the numbers. They felt the Eagles were channeling some things across the middle and they were successful in taking away intermediate routes. With Ike Taylor down for the Steelers, they should be able to make some hits.
I trust the Steelers. People say, how can you trust a team that's lost four of the last five? But they should have won in Dallas and I think they respond to the sense of urgency.
THE EDGE: Steelers by three. The Bengals could very well win the division. I don't think Baltimore is going to win another game. They have no idea what they're doing on offense and they've got guys down on defense. But Pittsburgh is at home and even though Roethlisberger has been pretty inconsistent the past few weeks, I trust him in big games. There are very few quarterbacks I trust more in big games than Roethlisberger.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Just take a look at the last Steelers game, the 24-17 loss on Oct. 21 at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals had a 14-6 lead and a first down on their 45 with 1:30 left in the first half when the ball fell out of Dalton's hand oddly and ended up in a bad turnover that turned into a tie game at the half.
The formula is pretty clear: keep Roethlisberger off the field with the Bengals running game, or at the very least, possession passes and no turnovers. The sense here is that Mike Zimmer's defense is going to go down there and pitch a game that's going to be good enough to win if the offense can put up more than 17 points.
The Steelers always want to establish the run vs. the Bengals, but since Cincinnati allowed 122 yards rushing back in the Oct. 21 game to Dwyer, the Bengals have allowed just one team to rush for more than that since (129) and no 100-yard rushers. In the month of December, the longest run the Bengals have allowed a running back is eight yards.
The fleet Steelers wide receivers are worrisome, especially Wallace's patented field-changing catches. But since Denver's Demaryius Thomas caught a 45-yarder on Nov. 4, the Bengals secondary has allowed just one pass longer than 27 yards.
Those are two huge factors in the formula the Bengals need to beat the Steelers.
Cincinnati also needs a clean game on special teams because lately this is a series where the kicking game has been big. The Bengals won the War of 18-12 in '09 on Bernard Scott's 96-yard kick return and the next year at home his fumble on a kick return and a botched punt sealed Cincinnati's fate.
Last year at Heinz the Bengals had a field goal blocked and Antonio Brown scored on a 60-yard punt return. And back in October kick returner Chris Rainey tortured them for an average of 30.5 yards on four returns.
So the Bengals could use one of those Pro Bowl outings from punter Kevin Huber and all signs point to Josh Brown kicking instead of Mike Nugent. He'll have to stay flawless because Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham's miss from 54 yards back on Oct. 11 in Tennessee is the only kick he hasn't made this year.
In this 5-1 stretch, the Bengals defense and special teams have been better and better. It's the offense that has to step up. With everything on the line in the three December games, the Bengals have responded with one TD drive longer than half the field, their longest pass to a wide receiver is 17 yards, and they are 18-for-43 on third down.
Never has it been clearer for Dalton and Green. The Steelers secondary is dinged up, their best cover cornerback is out, and the time for the passing game is now. This is the kind of game why eras are named after you.
The way the defense and the special teams are playing, a solid effort and a few big passes should be enough to get the Bengals back to the playoffs.