Bengals want to take control of AFC Central
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The unbeaten Bengals have been so good that they can pretty much lock up the AFC North in the next few days.
A victory on Sunday in Pittsburgh would give Cincinnati a daunting four-game lead in the loss column over the second-place Steelers (4-3). The Bengals then return home for a Thursday night game against the third-place Browns (2-5).
At midseason, the Bengals (6-0) could already have the division in hand.
“I think the focus will be at an all-time high,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We have an opportunity, really, with two back-to-back division games — we know what those mean, we know in December how important those games can be after what happened to us last year. So it’ll be a great opportunity for us.”
For the Steelers, it’s a final chance to get back into the chase. They also started slowly last season, but won the division by beating the Bengals twice in December, forcing Cincinnati to settle for another wild-card berth.
The Steelers are expecting to have Ben Roethlisberger back after the quarterback missed four games with a sprained left knee, giving them a chance to pull off another second-half surge.
“Last year we were in the same predicament,” running back Le’Veon Bell said. “We were sitting 4-3 and we ended up finishing the season 11-5.”
But they didn’t have to chase down an unbeaten team at midseason. So all the upbeat talk aside, their game on Sunday represents the Steelers’ last chance to turn the North back into a race. The teams meet again on Dec. 13 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Five things to watch at Heinz Field:
HOW GOOD IS BEN? Roethlisberger’s left knee swelled when he practiced last week, giving him some concern. It’s unclear how much he’ll be able to move around in the pocket and improvise, which is his strength. Having him back on the field should be a boost by itself.
“Anytime you have a guy of that caliber, it rejuvenates, revitalizes and gets everyone excited,” receiver Antonio Brown said.
STOPPING BELL: The Bengals want to put the onus on Roethlisberger by stopping Bell, who has led the offense in the past five games. He ran for 121 yards and had 16 yards in receptions during a loss to Kansas City last Sunday.
“He has an unorthodox style of running that no one else in the NFL does, the patience he runs with,” Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. “It’s challenging. You can’t play the guessing game with him.”
HOT OFFENSE: Andy Dalton comes into the game as the NFL’s top-ranked passer. The Bengals offense is No. 3 overall in yards and is the only one in the AFC with two players who have scored six touchdowns — tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Jeremy Hill. The challenge is to keep it going with so much at stake in the next two games.
“This is like coming out in the second half and it’s a tie ballgame or you’ve got a lead,” Whitworth said. “If you don’t win the second half, it doesn’t matter. The truth is, we need that same kind of energy, same kind of spark.”
STEELERS DOMINATION: Pittsburgh has won three in a row and eight of 10 in the series. The Bengals have lost four of their past five at Heinz Field, where they’re 5-9 overall. Last season, the Bengals took a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter at Paul Brown Stadium, but Pittsburgh scored 25 points for a 42-21 win. In Pittsburgh, the Bengals had the ball trailing 20-17 with 4 minutes left when A.J. Green caught a pass, took a hit to the head that caused a concussion, and fumbled. The Steelers then wrapped up a 27-17 win.
“The game’s never over regardless what the score is,” Dalton said. “At any point things can turn. So that’s why you really have to take advantage of everything you get.”
SEVEN STRAIGHT: A win on Sunday would give the Bengals their first 7-0 start in franchise history. They’ve gone 6-0 two other times. Such starts are uncommon in the NFL, with only three teams going 7-0 in the past five years, according to STATS.
“Yes, it would be cool for this team to do something that’s never been done here before,” Dalton said. “But that’s definitely not our only motivation of what we’ve got going. There’s a lot in front of us.”
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