The loser of that AFC North clash drops to the No. 5 seed. In the event of a tie, and the league has had only one in 240 games this season, the Colts could secure the third seed with a win Sunday at Tennessee.
Presuming no tie, who should the Indianapolis Colts want to face on Jan. 3 or 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium in the first round of the AFC playoffs: Bengals or Steelers?
Stupid question? Or not?
The Colts (10-5) blanked the Bengals (10-4-1) in a 27-0 rout on Oct. 19 at Lucas Oil Stadium. That was, without question, the Colts’ best game of the season, their first shutout since 2008. The Bengals were banged up at the time and didn’t have star receiver A.J. Green.
Nobody needs to be reminded of what happened when the Colts visited Heinz Field a week after the Bengals game on Oct. 26. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns in a 51-34 Steelers romp.
The Steelers (10-5) have already made a definitive statement by taking apart the Bengals 42-21 on Dec. 7 at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium. So bring on the Bengals, right?
Say this for Cincinnati, though. The Bengals team that knocked off Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos 37-28 Monday night in Cincinnati doesn’t look like the same squad that visited Indianapolis two months ago.
Statistically, the Steelers have a better offense and defense than the Bengals. Pittsburgh is ranked second in offense and 20th in defense, based on yards gained and allowed. Cincinnati is ranked 15th in offense and 22nd in defense.
The Bengals have won five of their last six, the lone exception that Steelers setback. If they lose again to Pittsburgh, that would drop their road record to 5-3.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has taken his team to the postseason each of the past four years, but he has never won a playoff game in five appearances as Cincinnati’s head coach. He does have a Super Bowl ring, though. Lewis was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator when the Ravens defeated the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV.
But he’s been coaching in the Ohio River city since 2003, which means fans and media have continually asked when the Bengals are going to finally break through and win at least one playoff game.
Questions have also swirled around Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, asking if he can win the big games, most notably in the playoffs. He’s made it to the postseason in each of his four NFL seasons. Will this be the year for him, too?
Green has missed three games to injury and has at times played hurt, so his numbers are down but he’s still a talented target with 61 catches for 959 yards and six TDs. The Bengals also like to run the ball with Jeremy Hill (1,024 yards, nine TDs) and Giovani Bernard (672 yards, five TDs).
If the Colts end up playing the Steelers, which team will Mike Tomlin bring to town? Will it be the Steelers who crushed the Colts the last time they met? Or will it be the Steelers who lost at home to Tampa Bay and New Orleans, as well as on the road to the New York Jets?
Pittsburgh humbled the Colts with strategy last time. The Steelers kept in extra blockers at the expense of sending out fewer receivers to ensure that the Colts’ 3-4 blitz didn’t get to “Big Ben.” And it didn’t. He wasn’t sacked once, had all kinds of time to throw, and always seemed to find the open man.
And the Steelers have dynamic playmakers in wide receiver Antonio Brown (122 receptions, 1,570 yards, 12 TDs) and running back Le’Veon Bell (1,341 yards rushing, 77 catches for 774 yards receiving, 11 TDs combined).
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.