Despite already facing the New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens (twice), there may not be a bigger game to decide the Steelers' playoff hopes than this week's matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers (8-3) will try to duplicate their week ten effort against the Bengals (7-4) when they spoiled Cincinnati's comeback bid with a late interception from William Gay en route to a 24-17 win. After getting out to a quick 14-0 lead, the Steelers struggled to hang on against rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton. The second round pick from TCU was 15-30 for 170 yards, with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions as the Steelers improved to 12-1 against rookie quarterbacks in the Dick Lebeau era.

Since the week 10 loss, the Bengals have had mixed results in each of their last two weeks. In week 11, they lost a close game to the Baltimore Ravens on the road, and in week 12 they squeaked out a victory against the Cleveland Browns. Now, they are looking to hand the Steelers their third loss within the division which would put the Steelers in third place in the AFC North.

The Steelers are coming off a close win against the putrid Kansas City Chiefs after enjoying a rare, late, bye-week. Former Pitt quarterback, Tyler Palko, was one pass away from defeating his childhood team and capping off one of the bigger upsets this season but, Keenan Lewis's interception with under a minute remaining sealed Pittsburgh's fate and kept them in a first place tie with the Baltimore Ravens. Despite the win, the Steelers seemed unimpressed with their effort, vowing to make the necessary corrections over the course of this week.

Perhaps the Steelers are saving their best work for the biggest game which could be this upcoming week against the Bengals. A Steelers' victory this Sunday would keep Pittsburgh in the hunt for a division title while creating a two game cushion between them and the Bengals. A victory would also keep teams such as the Broncos, Jets and Titans from inching closer to a wild card spot. Most importantly, however, a win would keep the Steelers in the hunt for a division title and possible first round bye; a spot they have earned two of the last three seasons.

While the Texans are currently the top team in the conference, injuries to the quarterback position have forced them to rely on Jake Delhomme for the remainder of the season (unless he either gets hurt or throws an inordinate amount of interceptions). This weekend they have a tough test against the Atlanta Falcons before playing the Bengals on the road in week 14. Meanwhile, the Patriots continue to win pretty, beating up on terrible teams. Their last five games don't get any harder as they face the Colts (0-11), Redskins (4-7), Broncos (6-5), Dolphins (3-8), and Bills (5-6). Not exactly difficult but the Patriots have had issues on defense all year and a team that can move the ball on them can win. Still, if both the Steelers and Patriots manage to win out and the Steelers take the division, they will win the tie-breaker due to the Steelers beating the Patriots in week 8.

Other than a week 15 matchup against the 49ers on Monday Night Football, the Steelers have a cakewalk heading into the postseason. Among their five remaining games, Pittsburgh has to play the terrible St. Louis Rams and the horrible Cleveland Browns (twice). While there are no guarantees in today's NFL, you would be hard-pressed to find a more focused group of players heading into the final stretch of the season.

Still, they need to win.

All of the gaffs and mental breakdowns in last week's win against the Kansas City Chiefs need to be cleaned up before this divisional matchup. Other than the two touchdowns put up in the first few minutes of the game in week 10, the Bengals were able to go stride for stride with the Steelers by playing tough defense and establishing a decent running game. This is far from a "gimme" on the schedule, in fact, in should be viewed as a playoff game. The outcome of this game could set the playoff picture for the AFC and, depending on the result, the Steelers could be a top seed in the AFC, or on the outside looking in.

Posted in College Sports, Pittsburgh Steelers

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