If the Jets lose Monday night in Tennessee and the Bengals beat the Steelers next Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Heinz Field, Cincinnati becomes the sixth AFC team to secure at least four playoff berths since 2005. The Bengals would join the Steelers, Patriots, Colts, Ravens and Chargers.
And each generation of Bengals knows exactly what it has to do beat the Steelers. It begins and ends with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Since he came into the NFL in 2004, Big Ben has clocked the Bengals to the tune of 13-4 in the regular season with a passer rating of 86.4 on 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Throw in a 148.7 rating against Cincinnati in the '05 Wild Card playoff and the challenge is as clear as it's ever been.
Safety Chris Crocker lived through the Bengals sweep of the Steelers on the way to the 2009 AFC North title.
"The key to this game – and it's no secret – is we can't let Ben kill us," Crocker said Monday after the Bengals stayed indoors for their walkthrough. "If we get to him we've got to get him on the ground. He's the X-factor, he truly is. The play is never over. You have to put that clock out of your mind because he's going to start to run around, and we played a quarterback just like him in (Tony) Romo last week, so it's going to be the same kind of guy. We just have to play well against him."
Carlos Dunlap, the third-year left end playing the Steelers for the sixth time and looking for his first victory, is on the same wavelength.
"He's just like Romo; he's great at extending plays," Dunlap said of the Cowboys QB that has corralled the Bengals and Steelers the last two weeks.
"If he doesn't make the plays that he makes that he's good at making, then we win the football game. If we can eliminate Big Ben then we feel like we will win the football game. He's the heart of their offense right now and he's on fire. So we've got to stop him, slow him down, put the fire out."
Crocker has watched Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's reboot with wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton accomplish many things since the beginning of 2011.
Dalton became the first rookie quarterback last year to throw for 20 touchdowns while leading a team to a playoff berth as he and Green became the first rookie QB-receiver duo to go to the Pro Bowl. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins has racked up 18 sacks in the past two seasons and currently leads all NFL interior players in sacks for a defense that leads the league in sacks and is ranked in the top 10 overall. Since Sept. 11, 2011, the Bengals are 10-5 on the road, have won on the West Coast twice, knocked off the Super Bowl champs, and had five-game and four-game winning streaks.
They've done a lot. And now the Bengals want to add wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore to the list. The last win against Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 2009 came at Heinz on a day Carson Palmer was the team's leading passer, Bernard Scott was the leading rusher, Laveranues Coles the leading receiver, and Johnathan Joseph the leading tackler.
Crocker agrees that the Green-Dalton regime needs this one and next week against the Ravens for its rèsumè.
"Yes, because we really haven't done anything yet. I'm not going to say this is a defining moment because we play these guys twice a year but this is very big, especially at the end of the season," Crocker said. "We're picking up momentum. These teams are postseason teams every year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always in the postseason and they always go deep so it's important for us to play well against them now in order to go in with some momentum if we do make the postseason. It is big."
It's become a bit personal for Dunlap. His former Florida teammate, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, has been reminding him.
"He's always going to rub that in. I'm going to put my best effort on the line like we do every week," Dunlap said. "But of course me and Pouncey have that little personal rivalry being that we played together at Florida and now we're playing against each other and he's undefeated against me right now."
The message from Lewis on Monday, thanks to the standings and the scenarios, is pretty unvarnished: Beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final two games and the Bengals secure a wild card berth and maybe the AFC North title.
"We just know that we have to beat them. Otherwise what we've done up to this point doesn't mean anything," Dunlap said. "So, basically, it's Steelers week. We wouldn't rather be playing anybody else, especially not with what's at stake. We know what's at stake and it's a Steelers week. That's two different things and we plan on trying to make it in our favor."
Crocker has seen the reboot use its flash drive at times. He thinks if the Bengals can find it the next two weeks, they've troubleshot the Pittsburgh and Baltimore network.
"Let's just win this game. Let's win and let luck fall where it will fall but we can beat this team. I don't want to sit here and put them up on a pedestal," Crocker said. "They're a very good team. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have been very good teams for quite some while. They've been consistent and that's the thing with good teams, they've just been consistent. We have to be more consistent. You've seen great flashes and you've seen times where we haven't played so well. We just have to be more consistent to win a ballgame like this."