As the scoreboard tallies flashed across the television screen yesterday, the Bengals found themselves and their playoff chances greatly and unexpectedly enhanced.
With the Texans dismantling the Colts, the Broncos plucking the Ravens, and the Cowboys wrangling of the Steelers, opportunities thought to be lost after the Dallas game were suddenly again within reach.
Not only do the Bengals currently control the sixth and final AFC playoff seed, but they can even wrestle the division championship from Baltimore’s ever-weakening clutches.
But first thing’s first. Cincinnati must win next Sunday on the road against the one team that has shown to be their nemesis so many times before: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The evil black-and-yellow storm troopers of the Monongahela.
Gawd do I hate them.
Believe it or not, Pittsburgh has managed to win just one of their last five games, and that was a squeaker against the reeling Ravens. Around that three point win, they’ve fallen to those same Ravens, the perpetually rebuilding Browns, the phoning-it-in Chargers, and the Cowboys.
While the Bengals are kicking themselves for early-season slips against Miami and Cleveland, Pittsburgh is similarly bemoaning losses to those same Browns, at perhaps more embarrassing: the Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders.
Nonetheless, the Steelers remain a formidable foe. They defeated the Bengals in Cincinnati earlier this year, and have never lost to an Andy Dalton-led Bengals squad. They too often appear to overpower and intimidate the Bengals more than we’d like to admit. Like it or not, they just seem to have our number.
And now, the reckoning. Here they are again, standing in our way.
If the Bengals win, they will all but assure themselves a spot in the postseason while eliminating Pittsburgh’s hopes. It would also set up a winner-takes-the-division showdown with Baltimore in week 17 at PBS, ands long the way prove that the Bengals are finally a legitimate threat and exorcise more than a few demons.
If they can only win.
It’s poetic, really. Right or wrong, win or lose, the collision at Heinz Field is as it should be. Either Pittsburgh will again prove that the football gods love them and their snaggle-toothed rabble of obnoxious fans, or the Bengals will make a historic and long-overdue leap forward, avenging the crimes of 2005 and 2006, and perhaps putting the first rusty nail into the coffin of Pittsburgh’s latest dynastic run.
Can they do it? Oh yes they can. Make no mistake about that.
Pittsburgh’s recent struggles are well-documented. They are not the cast iron brutes of yesteryear. Their defense is riddled with injuries, aged and slowing. Their offense is finding it harder and harder to mask an inadequate offensive line and an over-dependance on the pass. Cincinnati’s defensive line can potentially cause Ben Roethlisberger fits, and the secondary is coming together. The Bengal offense may have finally just the right combination of ground game proficiency and aerial weaponry to cause Dick Lebeau to ponder retirement. On paper, it’s a good match-up.
But will Marvin Lewis’s charges be up for the challenge? That is the question.
T-minus six days til high noon at the OK Corral with a playoff spot on the line.
The reckoning is all.