Countdown: Steelers vs. Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (10-4-1)
Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014
Heinz Field
8:30 p.m.; NBC

SERIES HISTORY:  Steelers lead, 55-34, including 29-15 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have won seven of the last nine games.   

LAST MEETING: Steelers 42, Bengals 21, Dec. 7, 2014, Paul Brown Stadium: The Steelers erupted for 25 fourth-quarter points, an explosion that included a 94-yard touchdown pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger to WR Martavis Bryant. RB Le'Veon Bell's 185 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns also helped the Steelers survive Bengals WR A.J. Green's 224 receiving yards, including an 81-yard score. Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton scored on a 20-yard read-option touchdown run but also fumbled on a read-option, a turnover that helped spark the Steelers' comeback.    

LAST WEEK: The Steelers kept the Chiefs out of the end zone in a playoffs-clinching, 20-12, victory at Heinz Field. Their defense registered a season-high six sacks and allowed a season-low 39 rushing yards. The Bengals likewise punched their ticket to the postseason with a 37-28 victory over the Broncos on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati intercepted Denver QB Peyton Manning four times.

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WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL**: RB Jeremy Hill will attack downhill, as has been his habit of late.

The rookie second-round pick has piled up 295 yards, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns over the last two games (one of those an 85-yard blast on Monday night against Denver). For the season Hill is at 1,024 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The Steelers kept him in check the first time (46 yards on eight carries) and did an even better job on complement back Giovani Bernard (six carries, 17 yards). Hill has fumbled three times in the last two games and five times on the season.

Dalton has attempted 30 or more passes in a game just six times this season (Roethlisberger has done so 14 times) and hasn't hit that figure in the last four games. His 17 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, and 83.3 passer rating might have something to do with the Bengals seemingly wanting to put the game in someone else's hands. Green (right biceps) was banged up against Denver but he's an obvious and combustible component when he's available. TE Jermaine Gresham is a reliable chains-moving option and WR Mohamed Sanu is a triple-threat gadget guy (run, pass, catch or Wildcat). The Bengals have allowed 20 sacks, the third-fewest in the NFL (Broncos 16, Ravens 18).

Cincinnati is No. 15 in total offense, fifth rushing and tied for No. 22 passing.

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WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL**: They'll have to carefully pick their spots when challenging a deep, talented, veteran secondary, as was the case heading into the first meeting between the teams.

The Bengals' apparent determination not to let receivers get behind them and to not let the ball get over their heads pays dividends. Cincinnati had more interceptions (12) than touchdown passes allowed (11) prior to the initial meeting against the Steelers. Although the Steelers managed three touchdown passes and weren't intercepted, the numbers this time for the Bengals are 18 interceptions and 16 touchdown passes allowed in the wake of their four-interception game against Manning on Monday night. One of those was returned for a touchdown by CB Dre Kirkpatrick, a No. 1 pick in 2012 who replaced veteran Terence Newman (illness) late in the third quarter and finished with two picks.

The Bengals are No. 22 in totals defense (16th passing, 23rd rushing). They allowed the Steelers 193 rushing yards in the first meeting and have coughed up over 100 to opponents eight times this season. The Bengals also aren't big on sacking the quarterback (they have an NFL-low 20). But they're long and athletic up front and have the potential to be disruptive as a result, either by chasing plays or getting their arms and hands on passes at the line of scrimmage.

SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: Bengals CB Adam Jones and WR Brandon Tate are hold-your-breath return men (Tate had a 49-yard punt return and Jones an 80-yard kickoff return against Denver). The Steelers sniffed out and were positioned to defend a fake-field goal by the Chiefs on fourth-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 12-yard line in the second quarter last Sunday, but the Chiefs still executed the play.       

THE X-FACTOR: The Bengals had been 2-6 in prime time since Dalton took over as their quarterback in 2011 prior to Monday night's win over Denver, and Dalton started that game by throwing a pick-six. How will he and his teammates respond to the bright lights of prime time on the road with a division title at stake?

THEY SAID IT: "You've got to credit these guys because they just keep on grinding. They hear the message and take heart and go to work at it. It's expected, but there's more out there. We want more." – Coach Marvin Lewis on Cincinnati's fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs.

"With the way our front is playing right now I feel we can stop anybody. It's just a matter of us going out and doing it."  _ Steelers FS Mike Mitchell.

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