Since Sunday's AFC North showdown in Pittsburgh (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) is so huge, we've expanded the Bengals.com Media Forum to include some old friends such as former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton as well as The Guru, a former NFL personnel chief.
Plus, we've beefed up the press table with a few extra national chairs. Joining ESPN's The Professor John Clayton is The General Manager Charley Casserly from CBS Sports and Alex Marvez, The Sheik of FoxSports.com; although we have to disagree with Fox's Marv on his take the offensive line didn't play well last week against Cleveland. It did in the second half.
Clayton, by the way, is picking these two clubs playing Sunday getting the AFC Wild Cards.
And there's Gerry Dulac of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the leader in the clubhouse with his prediction from the last game: Steelers, 23-16, in a game the Steelers won 24-17.
Dulac has got the same club out again even though earlier in the week he was leaning to Cincinnati. But looking at the wind blowing in the Bengals face with their injury situation, he went back to the bag and has got the Steelers again.
Although the majority is picking the Steelers in some measure because of the losses of cornerback Leon Hall, left end Carlos Dunlap and maybe even cornerback Nate Clements, everyone has a tight game that can go either way.
"This a line-of-scrimmage game and the thing I took out of the last game is how confident the Bengals seemed to be in running the ball and getting to Ben Roethlisberger," Casserly says. "It's going to be tougher because of the injuries."
Both Clayton and Marvez think the Steelers have too much firepower for the Bengals secondary, but The Guru thinks the Bengals receivers can cause just as much havoc with the Pittsburgh DBs and Cincinnati can run the ball enough to keep Roethlisberger from getting as many shots.
And Thornton, who blogs for The Cincinnati Enquirer and logs for WLW Radio, says it can't be underestimated that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has won more games against the Steelers in Heinz (four) than Paul Brown Stadium (one).
Let's go around the room:
Marvin's teams have always played confidently up there and I know these guys are confident for this one and that's why I like the Bengals.
They've got some tough injuries, but we went up there in '06 and beat them (26-20 to go 3-0) with a ton of guys that were out from the week before against Cleveland. (SAM backer) David Pollack broke his neck. (Center) Rich Braham was out and so was (kick returner) Tab Perry and (strong safety) Dexter Jackson. All of them were key guys, but we still won because we had confidence.
The injuries are tough because they're all key guys, but they have guys that can step in; it's just if someone else goes down in the game. But I Iike the way they're playing. They've got better personnel than the Chiefs, who gave them a close game Sunday night. They know they can play physical with the Steelers and they know it's going to be a tight game after what happened the last time.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 21-17. I think the Bengals can score enough. When you've got a top five defense, 17 points is usually enough. They're not airing it out. They're playing small ball and a lot of that has to do with the rookie quarterback, but they've got that style for that defense. They can't turn it over. It always seems like when you have a pick or a fumble at their place, they score a touchdown.
I had this feeling earlier in the week that the Bengals were going to win but I changed my mind as the week went on. Even though they won last week, I just think they're going to have trouble when the Steelers throw it downfield. And the Bengals have been having trouble getting out of the gate while the Steelers have been just the opposite.
In four of the last six games heading into the second quarter (the Steelers) have had a double-digit lead. Before the Kansas City game last week they had scored on their opening possession in five of the last six games.
And their defense is starting to take the ball away again. They had four takeaways in the first 39 quarters. Starting with that fourth quarter against the Bengals they've got six in the last five.
Ben's broken thumb doesn't seem to be affecting him. He seems to have zip with good velocity and accuracy. He was 21-of-31 last week, and he had some drops.
THE EDGE: Steelers, 27-20. The Bengals sacked Ben five times last time, but losing Hall hurts the Bengals. The Steelers make some big plays, the Bengals have given up some big plays and without Hall they have the opportunity to do so again.
Don't be fooled by how the Steelers played in Kansas City last week. When safety Troy Polamalu went out of the game that was not the real Steelers defense. They had to go to more base packages and they still played pretty well.
I didn't think the Bengals played well up front on offense last week. Cleveland beat them and that's not a typical game for that group. We know that giving up big plays has been a season-long problem for them in the secondary. I think the one thing the Bengals have to do is address the safety position. I love Chris Crocker. Great person and good player. But until they get a big-time safety, I don't think their defense gets over the top.
THE EDGE: Steelers, 21-10. It's going to be hard fought, but the matchup goes to the Steelers defensively. Pittsburgh is too far ahead of the Bengals right now. I may be saying the exact opposite a year from now, but not now.
I feel like the Bengals think they can run it on them and defensively they think they can stop them running the ball with seven men and beating them on the edge. My sense is the Bengals feel they can do those things against the Steelers and they aren't intimidated by them. The thing they have to do is get Ben to the ground.
THE EDGE: Steelers, 20-17. It's a line of scrimmage game. The injuries are going to hurt Cincinnati, but I could see a tight, low-scoring game.
With Leon Hall out for the whole game, I just think that is too tough of a thing for the Bengals to overcome. The Steelers have three receivers in Wallace, Brown and Sanders that can really play and run.
The Bengals should have A.J. Green for the whole game and tight end Jermaine Gresham is another great weapon, but the Steelers just have too much firepower. Plus, the Steelers get back their biggest sack guy in outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
THE EDGE: Steelers, 20-16. The Bengals played pretty well the last time against them, but it's harder to win in Pittsburgh and they're not going to have some of the same players. I do think the Bengals hold on to that sixth seed for the playoffs. I don't see the Jets getting to 10 wins.
I really like Cincinnati in this one. I think they came out of that last game thinking they knew they had Pittsburgh right there and there's that feeling, 'Hey, we can beat these guys.'
I love the quarterback. Most of the time the kid is a great decision-maker. You're always worried about how a rookie plays in big games and on third down and in certain situations, but he's been just the exact opposite. He plays like an experienced quarterback. He just keeps playing. He takes shots, he's got enough mobility, he's aggressive. He's been tremendous.
I think the thing with the Bengals secondary … you can do things to help guys. You can get it done not exposing people. Really, the Steelers have one solid corner in Ike Taylor and he can't play the ball. So there are things they can do. Plus, I think they've got an ability to score on Pittsburgh with A.J. Green and some of those long balls.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-24. They've proven they can get to Ben. They've had some big games against him and that is going to help them in the secondary. Marvin always has them ready to play against them, especially there. I just think the Bengals realize they still almost beat them the last time and didn't play well at the beginning of the game. They know if they don't get down, 14-0 … .
THE BOTTOM LINE
Pretty hard to call a one-play game and that's usually what this thing is.
It's funny how things change in 20 days. Way back then, the big concern was Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau chewing up a rookie in Dalton and Dalton did offer two picks.
But Dalton did have the Bengals driving for a tying score and since then he's hit the Ravens for a career-high 373 yards passing and racked up another fourth-quarter victory against Cleveland, so that concern seems to have dissipated.
Now the concern is defense even though this team hasn't allowed an offensive TD at Heinz since 2008. But the Bengals don't have the two starting cornerbacks that were a big part of that and their remaining most accomplished corner, Nate Clements, may not play because of a hamstring problem.
So not having their best pass rusher, left end Carlos Dunlap is magnified. But another injured guy on the defensive front may be just as important. Run-stuffing tackle Pat Sims has been ruled questionable with the ankle injury that iced him late last week and if he can't play that hurts the nice rotation the defense has going that has produced some big short-yardage stops the last few weeks.
And here's more concern for the secondary that may be undermanned. According to STATS Inc., Roethlisberger is the NFL's second-highest rated passer on play-action passes (130.7) on eight TD passes and zero interceptions. The Bengals are last in play-action defense with a passer rating of 144.7 and seven touchdown passes.
But all is not lost. The Bengals may know how to win there under Lewis, yet these guys know how not to lose one there even if this is their Heinz debut. The Bengals got beat at Heinz last year because Carson Palmer threw two pick-sixes with the help of wide receiver Terrell Owens (at least on one of them) not finishing his route so you figure that kind of stuff isn't going to happen Sunday.
No doubt the Bengals offense would like to keep the defense off the field against Ben's bombs, but the Steelers are tough to possess the ball on. They keep it nearly 33 minutes with the NFL's second-best defense working for them because the running game (ranked 18th) is nothing special.
With Green back, though, Dalton can match Ben bomb-for-bomb. Maybe the matchup to watch is LeBeau vs. Green. Down through the years, there has always seemed to be a Bengals receiver LeBeau couldn't contain and that was because of speed out running the schemes.
In the mid-'90s it was Darnay Scott that gave LeBeau fits. A few years ago it was Chris Henry. (In '06, Henry caught nine balls for an average of 21.4 yards and three TDs in two games against the Steelers.)
And maybe it is Green now with his one catch against Pittsburgh a 36-yard leaping TD before he got hurt three weeks ago. Loping and leaping are hard to defend with Xs and Os.