Old-School Showdown To Decide AFC North

Steelers, Bengals should be physical tonight in the regular-season finale.

The Cincinnati Bengals earlier this month thought it wise to go away from their big, physical offensive line that led the way for their big, physical rookie running back and instead called 38 pass plays.

They bombed the Pittsburgh Steelers for 327 yards through their air that day with the help of a 119.6 passer rating.

And lost by 21 points.

Three weeks later, the Bengals' running game has gotten even better. Rookie back Jeremy Hill has crossed the 1,000-yard threshold and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry after tearing up the Cleveland Browns with 148 rushing yards and, this past Monday night, the Denver Broncos with 147 rushing yards, including an 85-yarder for a touchdown.

Did the Steelers watch that game?

"Yeah, I watched it," said Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon.

And?

"To me, honestly, the Bengals wanted it," McLendon said. "They played physical."

That's the opposite of how they played the Steelers three weeks ago when McLendon was a big question mark after missing four of the previous six games with a shoulder issues. But the Bengals rarely tested him. A run defense that allowed 4.8 yards per carry without McLendon had to tackle the 235-pound Hill only eight times.

That he gained 46 yards at an average of 5.8 per rush may have been a result of McLendon's sore shoulder, but McLendon says he's completely healthy now.

"I'm feeling really good, feeling excellent," he said. "I'm feeling the best that I've felt all season."

And the Steelers' nose tackle is fresh today after playing only 17 snaps against the 3WR-based Kansas City Chiefs offense last Sunday. He expects Cincinnati to do what it does best this time: run the ball.

"I wanted them to win," McLendon said of the Bengals' 37-28 win over the Broncos that set up today's showdown for the AFC North Division championship.

"I wanted Cincinnati to win so everyone would know that when they come in here it's going to be a good game. It's going to be a physical game."

McLendon rarely gets excited while talking to a reporter in the locker room, but he was just getting started as he took off his pads following a mid-week practice.

"The fact they played so well the other night makes sure that nobody on our end has a letdown. We all could see how hard they played that game. Everybody knows how good Denver is, so now nobody here's underestimating Cincinnati. That's the biggest thing. I don't think anybody here underestimates anybody in our division anyway, but to see them win; now the game's coming down to us and them and it's gonna be a good game. It's gonna be a physical game."

Why, McLendon was asked, weren't the Bengals more physical three weeks ago?

"I can't answer that. All I can tell you is that we played our game plan, we stuck to our game plan, we listened to our coaches, and we had a great week of practice that week," McLendon said. "I think we have to do the same thing, and we have a great game plan again. I feel like we have to do everything we did before, and more, now that it's at home in front of our home crowd. We just have to play for 60 minutes. Play hard, play together, do the little things, and just keep playing hard, make it a physical game. "We know it's going to be a physical game but let's make sure it's physical on our end. If we can handle what we have to do on our end, we can be successful."

The Steelers are healthy for the most part. Veteran defensive backs Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are questionable, and neither looked particularly spry this week in practice, so it's quite possible they could sit together for a second consecutive week.

The two were victimized by A.J. Green for 224 yards three weeks ago, and the backups played well last week against the Chiefs.

Probably more important to the Steelers is the health of blocking tight end Matt Spaeth, who played a key role in the Steelers' 193-yard rushing performance three weeks ago. Speath practiced this week with his elbow injury and is listed as questionable.

The Bengals had a flu bug rip through their camp this week. One of the victims was quarterback Andy Dalton, who missed one day of practice. Dalton, of course, had to leave the last Steelers game temporarily after taking Stephon Tuitt's helmet in the stomach/groin area.

Dalton returned to practice Thursday and said, "It was just another 24-hour thing," but added: "It's crazy how contagious this thing has been. Hopefully we can limit who all's getting it, but it's definitely been spreading."

It would unlikely that Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis will return with another high-flying passing show against the Steelers, particularly if his quarterback's been weakened by a flu bug, and particularly since that strategy failed so miserably only three weeks ago.

Besides, the Bengals seem to believe the Steelers will be more worried about defending Green this time around.

"I think so," Dalton said. "I think he was able to do some really good things last time and so obviously they're going to know where he is and try to take him away."

Of course, the guys in the pits are revved up in anticipating of an old-school, AFC North showdown.

"I'm always excited to play, but I'm more excited because this is a championship game," said McLendon. "We need this. We really need this. It's that mentality of going into the playoffs without any drop-off. We want to continue to win. We don't want to be one of those teams that goes into the playoffs off a loss. I want to go into the playoffs with a win. All of us do. And we had a great practice today. The energy was there."

No one doubts it'll be there today, too.


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