"It's AFC North ball. We love that. We understand what that is. They're riding a two-game win streak. It's critical ball for them as it is for us."
Those weren't the first things Mike Tomlin said during his regular weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, but they represented the recurring theme.
Riding a six-game winning streak, the Steelers will visit Paul Brown Stadium for a Monday night game against a Bengals team on a two-game win streak of its own. But the 9-2 Steelers are in a much different spot than the 5-6 Bengals this time around, because while Pittsburgh currently is the top seed in the AFC, Cincinnati will enter the weekend at No. 8, which is two spots out of the six-team playoff picture in the conference.
Might that remove some of the luster from Monday night?
"Not for me," said Tomlin.
Still, the Steelers haven't clinched anything and the Bengals haven't been eliminated from anything, which means the game can be expected to be typical Steelers at Bengals in December.
In 2014, the Steelers posted a 42-21 win in Cincinnati on Dec. 7, which was the first victory of a four-game winning streak that allowed the Steelers to end the season atop the AFC North Division for the first time since 2010.
In 2015, the Steelers needed their 33-20 win in Cincinnati on Dec. 13 to stay alive for an AFC Wild Card spot, which, once earned, sent the Steelers back to Paul Brown Stadium for the first round of those playoffs against the division-champion Bengals.
And then in 2016, the Steelers found themselves pretty much in win-or-go-home mode after falling to 4-5 following a four-game losing streak that didn't end until mid-November. They defeated the Bengals on Dec. 18, and then they clinched the AFC North with a Christmas Day victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
It was posed to Tomlin during his news conference that this upcoming edition might lack a little bit of the excitement of those recent matchups because of the disparity in the teams' records, and might he have to convince his players that this game is no less critical than those in the recent past?
"I understand what you're asking. Maybe globally it's a reasonable question," said Tomlin. "I just think AFC North, Cincinnati Bengals, our recent history against these guys, how emotional these games are, how big these games have been. How many times have we played these guys in December and January in the last few years? And seemingly, always in Cincinnati.
"I think all those things will capture the attention of our guys. Hey, it's AFC North ball."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Joe Haden will be out again this week. I don't have any clarity on his situation or when he'll return. Really, as we get close I'll ask more definitive questions about where he is. I'm not close enough yet. He's out this week. Two guys who missed the game last week who definitely have a chance this week are Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Both guys missed the last game, both guys have an opportunity to play this week. As always, their practice participation and the quality of that participation will be our guide. We have a couple of guys who have ongoing issues or in-game issues – Ryan Shazier and Mike Mitchell, with their ankle injuries. But both guys should be fine. They may be limited at the early portions of the week but should be ready for play."