The last time a Bengals-Steelers game had this much snap-crackle-and-pop at Paul Brown Stadium, Carson Palmer's knee got crunched in the first minute of a Wild and Wooly Card Game in the 2005 playoffs and Bengaldom got turned upside down. Pittsburgh ended up winning the Super Bowl while the Carson-Chad-T.J.-Rudi Bengals never recovered to get back to the postseason.
But a new generation spearheaded by the Pro Bowl connection of wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton are looking to tilt the karma upright in Sunday's tipping point of a game (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) when 3-3 Cincinnati stinging from two straight "should have hads," plays a 2-3 Steelers team reeling with all its losses coming on the road in the fourth quarter.
If it's not winner take all, it's at least winner take the ball heading into the second half of the season.
The Bengals.com media roundtable believes the seven-year itch is going to be scratched with a unanimous projection that gives the nod to the Bengals in a shootout over the Steelers.
Peter King, the sage of Sports Illustrated, thinks the nation is in for an entertaining game in which Dalton outduels Ben Roethlisberger and a depleted Steelers secondary.
Gerry Dulac is thinking along the same lines. Dulac, who teams with Ed Bouchette for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to form the NFL's best Cover 2 beat coverage, has watched the Pittsburgh defensive backs come up with just one interception in the first five games and he thinks Green has a big day.
Sam Monson of the web site profootballfocus.com gives the Bengals the edge in the trenches and Steve Wyche of NFL.com and The Network thinks Dalton has a slew of favorable matchups at his disposal.
Let's go around the table:
This is going to be a fun game. A lot of excitement. A lot of big plays. The Steelers are really going to miss strong safety Troy Polamalu. He's such a key guy for their defense. He puts it all together out there. To me, that's the biggest part of this game. The Bengals have shown they can throw the ball and the Steelers have shown they've had a tough time stopping it.
I think Dalton is doing just fine. I know he's had a couple of tough games in a row, but we've been spoiled by all the great things these young quarterbacks are doing. I mean, are you kidding me? Robert Griffin III is completing more than 70 percent of his passes?
Dalton has thrown some interceptions, but that's going to happen to a young guy. But he's playing with so much poise and confidence that you get the sense he's going to be really good the more experience he gets.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-20. Dalton's hot and Polamalu's not playing.
I'm picking the Bengals. I'm not sure why, but you have to look at what the Steelers are doing. They've played poorly on the road and in the fourth quarter. They don't make any plays defensively in the back end and in Green the Steelers are facing the best receiver they've seen all year and maybe for the rest of the year.
They rank OK statistically on defense and the only big play they gave up was an 81-yarder in Denver in the opener. But last week when they lost in Tennessee to a team that doesn't go vertical they gave up a lot of mid-range passes, six plays of at least 18 yards. You've got to figure that their best cornerback, Ike Taylor, is going to do what he did last year and what he did for all those years playing Chad Johnson and shadow Green. But Taylor has been getting criticized this year after getting seven penalties and giving up four touchdowns.
Ben hasn't been sacked a lot, but there has been pressure. Mike Adams, the second-rounder, is starting in place of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, and he struggled in the preseason when in his first preseason game he gave up two sacks in his first 17 snaps. But they like what he's done against the run.
They haven't had much of a running game and with their top two backs not playing—Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman—I'm not sure it's going to be much better and that's hurt them. They lead the league converting third downs and time of possession, but they're only 17th in scoring.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-24. In a lot of ways, these are very similar teams. They haven't played well in the second half, they don't turn the ball over on defense and they can't run the ball on offense. The Bengals have a good passing game and the Steelers have blown three fourth-quarter leads, so what's that tell you? Teams have come back on them throwing.
The AFC is wide open and that division is wide open. Neither of these teams has taken the opportunity to stand up and say they want that playoff spot. They both have had some really good stuff and really bad stuff and I really don't know who's going to take this game as a marker.
The Steelers offensive line is in disarray at the moment, but it always is to some extent. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is behind it, they always have a chance.
He's one of the few quarterbacks that can deal with a struggling offensive line. I think the Bengals offensive line is actually playing pretty well and Dalton has struggled. The question is if Roethlisberger can play better than Dalton under more difficult circumstances. I felt Dalton got a lot of credit last year even though he didn't play well down the stretch and right now he isn't throwing the ball very accurately on the simplest of throws.
I think the Bengals offensive line has the advantage over the Steelers front seven, which has had some injuries. They're kind of declining. Nose tackle Casey Hampton isn't what he was. Defensive end Brett Keisel has been the guy playing closest to himself, but he's not having that great of a season.
The Bengals offensive line is playing real well with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and both young guards both playing well. The only weak spot has been right up the middle, but I don't think Hampton is still good enough to take advantage of that like he would be in his prime.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-24. They have a big advantage in the trenches. Cincinnati should win. They're a better team all around and they've got more going for them than the Steelers. The only thing about that is the way the quarterbacks are playing at the moment. Roethlisberger is in a different class.
I think the Bengals have to jump out fast on the Steelers in the passing game. Pittsburgh is vulnerable on defense. The Bengals don't want to stall on the first three series and then all of a sudden Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace catches a bomb from Ben and they get behind to the stuff Dick LeBeau does with the Pittsburgh defense.
The national media is still expecting the Bengals to be good, but they're still also very open to them slipping on the banana peel. They're still a young team and they're banged up a little bit, but given the state of the Steelers, they can make a move in the division.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 28-24. Bigger plays trump big plays. I think there are going to be big plays on both sides. But with Polamalu out, Ike Taylor in, and guys like safety Ryan Mundy coming off the bench, I think the Bengals can take advantage of the matchups with A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. I also like slot receiver Andrew Hawkins and his speed is going to be a challenge for them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A wise old pro by the name of Norman Julius Esiason used to say it all the time around these parts:
Third down is the quarterback's down.
That's the obvious matchup in this one with the Steelers pitting their league-best third-down efficiency of nearly 52 percent against Cincinnati's league-worst 26.7 percent.
And even though Dalton is coming off a big three-pick game, there's a lot to like in The Red Baron's bid to get his first win against Big Ben. With Polamalu not playing, Taylor struggling, and the Steelers breaking in corners Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen, Dalton should get some shots with Green, Gresham, Hawkins, and the potential of rookie speedster Marvin Jones getting more time if the O-line can protect and the Bengals usually do against the Steelers.
But the Bengals can't go out there and rush 12 times for 38 yards because if they get into another game of long third downs, LeBeau is going to make life miserable for them as he tries to exploit third-down back Brian Leonard's absence with blitzes that Leonard picks up so well. LeBeau is going to blitz no matter what, but with Leonard out of there it's imperative the Bengals get help from tight ends and other backs.
Yet the Steelers have not been good vs. the pass. Their front seven has been intact for only one quarter this year and they'll have it in Cincinnati, but they are allowing passers a rating of 93.8 and have allowed nine TD passes compared to two interceptions.
But you could say the same for the Bengals, who are allowing a rating of 99.6 and have given up eight TD passes compared to two picks.
As much as the Bengals have struggled running the ball, the Steelers have struggled even more and they won't have their top two backs. They don't have a run longer than 17 yards (the Bengals have three of at least 20), they average three yards per carry (the Bengals average 3.9) and they're last in the NFL in rushing (the Bengals are 21st).
That should make things easier for Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer trying to wrestle Roethlisberger to the ground. The Bengals get a good matchup with left end Carlos Dunlap working against a rookie who has struggled in pass protection, right tackle Mike Adams, and six-sacker Geno Atkins from inside faces a center, Maurkice Pouncey, that was limited all week with a knee injury.
The one fear is that the Bengals have been vulnerable over the middle against possession passing and the Steelers lead the NFL in time of possession.
But the Bengals cornerbacks have done a good job shutting down the long ball on the outside and they have to step up big with Roethlisberger throwing to playmakers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, two wide receivers that can really jet.
So it is the quarterbacks. Esiason's third down.
But if you're Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, it's going to come down to fourth down. Last year in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati's bid blew up when the Bengals had a field goal blocked on the game's first possession and Brown later returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown. And two years ago at PBS against the Steelers, the game turned when Bernard Scott fumbled the opening kickoff and the Bengals later had a punt blocked.
Simmons feels like if the Bengals had been more reliable in Cleveland last week and not allowed Josh Cribbs's 60-yard punt return in the third quarter, they would have found a way to win. This week he's emphasized solid and sound, and it always seems like in this series when it is, the Bengals have a shot. Scott scored the only TD of the last win over the Steelers in '09 on a kick return.
Make it third down and fourth down. If the stat sheet is clean there for the Bengals, then at 4-3 so is November and December for a playoff run after the bye.