WHAT: AFC Wild Card playoff
WHO: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
WHEN: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
WHERE: at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
TV: CBS. Announcers: Jim Nantz, Phill Simms, Tracy Wolfson
BACKGROUND: There is a great amount of familiarity between the AFC North rivals - and nearly just as much contempt between the two. The teams split two hotly contested games this season, the Bengals winning 16-10 in Pittsburgh in November and the Steelers returning the favor in this stadium, 33-20, six weeks later.
BENGALS KEYS: Bengals QB Andy Dalton suffered a fractured thumb in the rematch. He hasn't played since and will again watch AJ McCarron take his place Saturday night in his fourth career start. Cincinnati ideally keeps the game close and pecks away with RBs Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in more of a ball-controlled attack. But the reality is the game will hinge on McCarron's arm - and his decision making. Dalton is out for the fourth straight week with his broken throwing thumb along with H-Back Ryan Hewitt (knee).
McCarron, in his first playing season after missing all of 2014 with injuries, wasn't sacked in the last meeting. But he did throw a pair of interceptions, and will be tested in reading the various blitz packages Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will bring. Pittsburgh had the league's 30th-ranked pass defense during the regular season and the Bengals must take advantage.
WR A.J. Green reeled in a season-high 11 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown in the 16-10 win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 1 before adding six catches for 132 yards and a score in the latter meeting, but Cincinnati was a worrisome 0-for-9 on third downs in the regular-season finale against a banged-up Ravens squad even though Hill rushed for nearly 100 yards.
STEELERS KEYS: The status of RB DeAngelo Williams (foot) would have dictated part of Pittsburgh's game plan, and he has been ruled out. They have expressed confidence in Fitzgerald Toussaint publicly, but the reality is the second-year player out of Michigan averaged just 2.3 yards on 18 carries during the regular season and did not have a single catch. The Steelers may turn instead to journeyman Jordan Todman, the good bet to start.
When starter Le'Veon Bell was lost for the season, Williams brought experience and versatility that were key to the offense running smoothly and providing QB Ben Roethlisberger with an outlet when his downfield receivers were covered up, but not Saturday.
Roethlisberger has thrown multiple interceptions in three consecutive games, and with a directive to protect the ball better, will likely look often to trusty TE Heath Miller, who had 10 catches in each of the regular-season meetings.
MATCHUP: Steelers WRs Antonio Brown (career-high 136 receptions and 1,834 yards) and Martavis Bryant vs. Bengals CBs Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick: Brown was held to six catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting and 7-87-0 in the second. That marked two of only four regular-season games that Roethlisberger started that Brown failed to top 100 yards.
Meanwhile, Bryant was called out by Big Ben this week to toughen up after he faded down the stretch. The Bengals can't match the speed of the Steelers' receivers, but they do have a veteran unit led by Hall and Kirkpatrick, who twice left last week's game with a twisted ankle. Veteran Adam Jones also figures into the mix. Roethlisberger and the Steelers throw the ball deep on third-and-three or shorter plays more than any other team in the NFL, so the Bengals need to do a better job than last week against the Ravens on third down. That will mean paying close attention to WR Marcus Wheaton.
SPOTLIGHT: Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict: The Pro Bowl outside backer was assessed with nearly half of the $150,000 in fines levied out by the NFL for illegal hits following last month's meeting. Roethlisberger believes Burfict took a cheap shot as his knee, and the Steelers also took offense to Burfict's reaction to Bell writhing on the ground with a season-ending knee injury in the first meeting.
The officials will be watching carefully, and the Bengals need Burfict to remain in control as a key cog in their seventh-ranked run defense. That didn't happen the last time when Burfict and players on both sides got into a pre-game skirmish. On the Steelers' side, Pittsburgh T Marcus Gilbert originally tweeted on Dec. 13 that he "would love to see (the Bengals) in the playoffs where they choke." The tweet has since been deleted.
PITTSBURGH FACT FACTS: The Steelers finished the regular season with 48 sacks, their most since 2010, and 15 more than last season. They are 12-2 at Cincinnati over the last 14 meetings at Paul Brown Stadium, all against Marvin Lewis. Toussaint and Todman, a pair of 5-9, 204-pound backs, have carried the ball a combined 22 times for 66 yards. The Steelers have lost three straight playoff games.
CINCINNATI FAST FACTS: The Bengals have lost seven consecutive playoff games since their last postseason victory following the 1990 season in 1991 at the old Riverfront Stadium. McCarron’s fourth NFL start comes in the Bengals’ fifth straight Wild Card appearance as he joins the list of Dalton (2011-14), Carson Palmer (2005, 2009), Boomer Esiason (1988, 1990), Ken Anderson (1973, 1975, 1981-82) and Virgil Carter (1970) as the club’s post-season quarterbacks.