Four consecutive postseason berths have led to four straight playoff losses for a Marvin Lewis-led team desperately looking to flip the script on Saturday night. "It's time to right the ship," Lewis told reporters. "You know, exorcism."
That's what makes this matchup tricky for Cincinnati. After roaring out to an 8-0 start and winning the AFC North weeks ago, the Bengals are 4-4 over their last eight games and facing a team that has largely owned them inside the division for years. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin holds a 13-5 advantage in games against Lewis, with Pittsburgh winning four of the last five.
The Steelers are seen by many as the favorite because they'll roll out Ben Roethlisberger, while the Bengals are saddled with AJ McCarron. It's a no-brainer, right? Wrong. These Bengals bring a defense to the table that ranks second in the NFL in points allowed (17.4), a mere tenth of a point behind The Legion of Boom.
Besides, Big Ben has been all over the map of late, tossing two-plus picks in three-straight games for the first time since 2006. The turnovers are concerning, especially with running back DeAngelo Williams set to miss the game with a foot injury. Roethlisberger, though, has the ability to explode at any time -- making this offense very tough to prepare for.
Which version of Ben we get on Saturday will determine whether the Bengals finally slay those playoff demons or simply add another grisly chapter to this tale of horror.
AJ McCarron, QB, Bengals: Saturday was supposed to be Andy Dalton's redemption. Badgered endlessly for his 0-4 playoff record, Dalton roared out of the gate at an MVP-level for a weapons-rich offense that looked primed for a Super Bowl run. Today, Dalton's fresh out of a cast on his broken throwing thumb, tossing lefty in practice and highly unlikely to play. We're not writing off McCarron, though, not after seeing coordinator Hue Jackson show so much trust in his second-year passer. With six touchdowns to two picks, McCarron hasn't been afraid to throw downfield to wideout A.J. Green and his fellow playmakers. With a lower pick percentage than Dalton, the former Alabama star isn't a massive downgrade from The Red Rifle, but McCarron still has just three starts to his name.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Steelers: With Williams still wearing a boot, coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged that his club is game-planning with an eye toward starting another running back. Toussaint got the nod in Cleveland after Williams went down and barely made a blip on the radar. The team also has former Jaguars back Jordan Todman, but the duo has combined for just 22 reps all season. Losing Williams would strip the Steelers of a valued pass-protector and put the Steelers in the same precarious place they were during last year's playoff loss to Baltimore: Without Le'Veon Bell or a feasible fill-in, a scenario that ended Pittsburgh's season.
Matchup to watch:
Everyone's talking about Pittsburgh's hyper-leaky secondary, but Cincy's defensive backfield is in for a stiff test of its own against a Steelers offense that ranks top-five in both total and scoring offense for the first time since 1979.
Throw that all away, though. If Roethlisberger and wideout Antonio Brown get in a groove, the Steelers have the power to litter the field with chunk plays and points through the air. Roethlisberger's 328.2 passing yards per game this season are the third-most in NFL history, while Pittsburgh joins Arizona as the only two teams in 2015 to house three receivers with 700-plus yards. Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant did the deed for the Steelers, but Bryant is on the hot seat after he vanished in recent weeks and absorbed some very public tough love from Roethlisberger on Tuesday.
The Bengals counter with a talented secondary filled with three first-round picks in Adam Jones, Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick. Allowing just three touchdowns through the air over the past six weeks, Cincy also has the benefit of a stout run defense and a frisky pass rush led by Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, whose combined 24.5 sacks as a duo rank behind only Houston's J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus (29.5).
The focus on McCarron makes sense, but it's Cincinnati's defense that has a chance to alter the course of this game and deliver the franchise's first playoff win since 1990.
For the Bengals, the magic number is 21. When scoring 21-plus points this season, Cincinnati is 11-1. Their record is just 1-3 when they score under 20. ... Roethlisberger struggled in his two games against the Bengals this season, throwing one touchdown to four picks as the teams split their season series. Those issues extend to Antonio Brown, who averaged 67.0 yards in two games against the Bengals and 146.5 yards per tilt against everyone else. ... Location matters: The Steelers are 4-4 away from Pittsburgh, averaging 22.3 points per game with a minus-7 turnover differential. They are 6-2 at home, scoring 30.6 points per tilt with a plus-9 turnover differential. Will Saturday reverse the trend?
There's an eerie similarity to when these two teams met in their only other playoff engagement back in 2005. That game saw Big Ben guide a sixth-seeded Steelers team past a Bengals club that played almost the entire game without Carson Palmer after he was lost on Cincy's second snap. That Steelers club went on to win three playoff road games and Super Bowl XL.
This Bengals team should not be overlooked, but I always tilt toward the quarterback position in the playoffs. McCarron has fared well, but look for Big Ben to make his share of game-changing throws to Brown and friends. The Steelers All-Pro receiver has been completely uncoverable of late and has the ability to fry any secondary in the league. Losing Williams would be a major loss for Pittsburgh, but the NFL's top stars shine in games like this, and Roethlisberger and Brown will be the two finest playmakers on the field come Saturday.