Just a week ago, the Steelers sat atop the entire American Football Conference, holding a top seed in the playoffs and fresh off a dominating but narrow victory over their long-time nemesis, the New England Patriots. Cincinnati was quietly riding a four-game winning streak and cruising below the radar.
Today, the Steelers find themselves in third place in their own division, looking up at the second-place Baltimore Ravens, to whom they've lost twice, and now at the first-place Bengals, whom they play tomorrow and again later in the season.
To the surprise of all, Cincinnati has restored the roar with multiple components:
- A play-making rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, who is in the discussion for Rookie of the Year and was just named Rookie of the Week. Dalton is poised, accurate and reasonably mobile. They call him The Red Rifle. He is kindling memories of Kenny Anderson, and not just because he wears Anderson's No. 14. As the season goes on, he's getting better.
- Emerging stars at wide receiver (A.J. Green) and tight end (Jermaine Grisham), plus a trio of running backs who have given the Steelers fits in the past -- Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard.
- A stingy defense that leads the NFL by surrendering a league-low 3.34 yards per rushing attempt.
- The Bengals' defense has been fortified at multiple key positions with veterans given a second chance at life in the NFL. Some would call them retreads or castoffs, but they've seized their opportunity collectively and are jelling as a tough, legitimate NFL defense. These "second-chance guys" include Reggie Nelson, Manny Lawson, Robert Geathers, Chris Crocker and Nate Clements. Nose tackle Domata Pako is strong, mobile, aggressive and has always been a handful for the Steelers. All of these guys are very good NFL players. Nelson, Lawson and Clements all were first-round draft picks.
- The Bengals also have several notorious and controversial players who have had scrapes with the law and various forms of negative publicity, namely: Cedric Benson, Adam Pacman Jones, Jerome Simpson, Rey Maualuga, Frostee Rucker and Carlos Dunlap. Several of these guys were high-round draft picks. All have been productive this year.
The Steelers need to win this game, and they need to do it convincingly.
In fact this is an absolute must-win game for the Steelers, lest they fall even further behind the Bengals and Ravens entering the bye week.