MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT
Steelers 31, Bengals 17
Jan. 8, 2006: Paul Brown Stadium
Naturally, the choice here is the 2005 wild-card round playoff game. The difference 10 years later is that the Cincinnati Bengals lost their starting quarterback on their first possession of the regular-season game they lost in December. Ten years ago, after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in December, the Bengals lost their starting quarterback on their first possession of the playoff game. The Steelers were three-point favorites back then, just as they are now. After Carson Palmer went down, Jon Kitna got the Bengals out to a 17-7 second-quarter lead, but the Steelers rallied with a 24-0 run behind Ben Roethlisberger's near-perfect 148.7 passer rating that day.
TALE OF THE TAPE
"You watch A.J. McCarron and here are the things that jump out at you: He's got a great arm, a very strong arm. Throws a seam route really well. For a young guy, not afraid to throw in the middle of the field. Has the gun to get the deep out cut, the 15-yard out cut. Doesn't seem to get rattled. Doesn't make stupid plays. He's not a guy you look at and you go, 'Wow, why did you throw that?' Since our game, I've not seen him throw an interception. The one thing I've noticed about him, he doesn't throw well moving to his left. He throws the ball real well moving to his right. And when he escapes he's looking to escape to the right. I wonder if you want to blitz him in his face then. He doesn't have great feet. Sometimes he doesn't set up real quick. At times it looks like he's very, very casual coming out from center. He's better out of shotgun so he's not hindered by his lack of quickness in his pass set. He can throw the ball with people in his face but he's not afraid to take the sack. It looks like there's some poise and composure there. He doesn't try to force it in. He's not afraid to throw the ball away. And he's not afraid to check it down. I think he can be a dangerous quarterback. I think you've got to change things up, give him a different look. You don't want him to get comfortable back there." -- Steelers Radio analyst Tunch Ilkin.
Can the Steelers generate a running game?
Someone wrote that Fitzgerald Toussaint is the perfect name for an under-the-radar type of playoff hero. Well, he is from Michigan and we all know how that Ohio thing goes for Wolverines, but Toussaint hasn't shown much in his 2.3 yards-per-carry average this season (although he did rush for 120 against Ohio State in 2011). Jordan Todman is faster and has a better resume but will likely be Toussaint's backup. Todman has made three starts in his four NFL seasons and rushed for over 100 yards once. Scouts like Toussaint's Le'Veon Bell-like patience, which they feel is so necessary against today's quick-reacting NFL linebackers. Coaches like Toussaint's pass-blocking. Historians like the fact that starting running back Willie Parker rushed for only 38 yards (2.4 ypc) in the Steelers' 14-point win in the 2005 playoff game.
FOUR QUESTIONS with OLB JAMES HARRISON
Q: Would you say the last game in Cincinnati was the most intensity the Steelers have shown all season?
JH: "Yeah, I would have to say it was. We had a little pre-game ruckus that kind of woke everybody up."
Q: That intensity worked for you guys. Do you expect the same kind of demeanor this game?
JH: "I would hope. I would hope we could try and match that, or even get a level above that. That's just something I feel we should come out with every game and not have to be egged into."
Q: It seemed like the last few games you haven't had it. Would you agree with that?
JH: "Not like it was that game. I would have to agree with that (laughs)."
Q: There were some personal fouls called in that game. Is that just a product of the high intensity?
JH: "There's a difference between intensity and foolishness. It's a fine line and you've got to be able to know when you're about to cross that line and not cross it. And then a lot of it comes up to the discretion of what the ref is looking at. Instead of giving him that option, to have to make that judgment call, don't put yourself in questionable positions."
What to look for from the Steelers on Saturday (8:20 p.m.) in Cincinnati:
The screen game was so important to slowing Geno Atkins and Co. last time out. Without a running back, that will fall more on Heath Miller and the wide-receiving corps. Miller will also help out over the middle, but he's gaining less separation it seems with each passing week. Still, he's wrestling the ball from defensive backs and remains Roethlisberger's best friend against difficult Cover-2 pass defenses, per the Bengals. Miller, Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton need quality short games, so that Martavis Bryant can make the big play when called upon.
A.J. Green will make his catches against the Steelers' 30th-ranked pass defense, and tight end Tyler Eifert will be back in the Bengals' lineup, so the important thing for the Steelers is to stop the running game and keep McCarron, who's making his fourth NFL start, well behind the chains. "Obviously they're going to try to run the ball to make it manageable for him," said Cam Heyward. "Gio (Bernard) is more of a scatback, but he can also hit you on the draw. Jeremy (Hill) is more of a downhill runner. You see him on a lot of the mush tackles where he's getting pushed forward. That's the way they like it. They want to win those piles. They want to get those five or six yards every single time." And the Steelers need to prevent it.
Maybe I'm still raw from last year's playoff game, which the Steelers entered with a back off their practice squad. And maybe I'm still chapped from the blase performances of the last two weeks. Maybe I've just become accustomed to this Steelers team coming up short in recent years. But I don't like the fact the Bengals seem to have little fall-off behind injured QB Andy Dalton and are otherwise healthy against a Steelers team that won in Cincinnati too recently. The emotional edge would seem to favor the Bengals, so I'll go with that. (And hopefully I'll jinx them like a Bengal using a Terrible Towel to clean his cleats.) Bengals, 24-19.
BY THE NUMBERS
0: Number of playoff games the Bengals have won in seven attempts as an underdog.
8: Number of playoff games the Steelers have won with Roethlisberger at quarterback in 10 attempts as a favorite.
17: Number of playoff games the Steelers have won since the Bengals won their last playoff game (Jan. 6, 1991).
51: Receptions by Antonio Brown during the months of December/January, nine more than any other NFL player, and the number of points scored by kicker Chris Boswell, seven more than any other NFL kicker. Both players were named AFC Players of the Month for their respective units, the second consecutive honor for Brown.
60: Receptions by Heath Miller this season to rank second on the team. Twenty of those catches were made in the two games against the Bengals.
66: The longest pass play in Bengals post-season history (2006 vs. Steelers) resulted in game-ending injuries to both quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Chris Henry.
* Bengals DBs coach Vance Joseph believes his cover-2 is the answer to stopping the Steelers offense, and the stats back him up. In two games this season, the Bengals allowed Roethlisberger 9.4 yards per completion. The rest of the league allowed him 13.0. Said Joseph: "We play them all the time so we know how good they are – how good 84 (Brown) is, how good Ben is. Teams come in and play them once a year, they have no idea how good they are. So they come out and they play certain coverages. They play really a bunch of man, a bunch of single-high stuff, and it doesn’t work. We play them all the time. The key is not to give up big plays.”
* The Steelers are 9-2 in the playoffs when meeting a team for a third time in one season. The losses occurred last year to the Baltimore Ravens and in 1947 to the Philadelphia Eagles. The 1947 game was the last time the Steelers played the same team three times in less than 10 weeks, as they will Saturday night.
* The Bengals lost Dalton on a third-down conversion attempt that was intercepted by Stephon Tuitt. That failed conversion put the team's third-down conversion rate at 42 percent under Dalton. Under McCarron, they've converted 36 percent and are on an 0-for-10 run.
* The Steelers haven't allowed a touchdown pass to a tight end since the bye week. In those six games, they've allowed the opposing No. 1 TE to catch an average of four passes for 45 yards, or nearly what Eifert produced in his 4-for-39 first meeting. Eifert was injured on the first drive of the second meeting and finished 2-for-42.
* A.J. Green has caught 17 passes for 250 yards in two games against the Steelers this season. In his last five games against the Steelers, Green has averaged nine catches for 130 yards per game. In his 10-game career against the Steelers, Green averages 13.4 yards per catch.
* Antonio Brown has caught 13 passes for 134 yards in two games against the Bengals this season. In his last five games against the Bengals, Brown has averaged seven catches for 89 yards per game. In his 11-game career against the Bengals, Brown averages 14.1 yards per catch.
"I love that guy like a little brother, so I just wanted him to know we need him to step up. It was nothing more than just a challenge. That’s all." -- Roethlisberger on Martavis Bryant.
The Steelers and Bengals will play for a third time in less than 10 weeks Saturday. Here's the breakdown:
MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT