Not Quite a Guarantee

Before the Pittsburgh Steelers played the New England Patriots in January of 2002, Bill Cowher told his players to make their Super Bowl arrangements ahead of time. Word got out what the Steelers were up to and the Patriots took care of the rest. The story this week is that the Cincinnati Bengals are printing playoff tickets, with 5 games left in the season.

The presses are likely quiet in Pittsburgh with the Steelers sitting at 4-7, the basement of the AFC North. If there is any hope at all for a game in January, the Steelers will have to beat the visiting Cincinnati Bengals first.

Bengals WR Chad Johnson has been quiet this week, offering no bold predictions like he did before the upset win over the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. The only playoff loudmouth is in Baltimore, where Corey Fuller has already assured anyone who will listen that his Ravens will represent the division in the postseason party.

Head coach Marvin Lewis has done wonders with the Bengals organization and he could put an impressive stamp on this season by beating the Steelers this Sunday. Lewis knows that any playoff hopes for his team will be decided over the next two weeks, a game in Baltimore following the one in Pittsburgh.

The Bengals are brimming with confidence, winners of 5 of their last 6 games. They sit atop the North and control their own destiny. This is not the same team that the Steelers beat 17-10, a game that was not as close as the score would indicate.

Cincinnati's leading rusher, RB Rudi Johnson, was not even active for that game and Corey Dillon didn't play in the second half thanks to a groin injury. The Bengals struggled to move the ball and Steelers LB Kendrell Bell abused second year left tackle Levi Jones to the tune of two sacks. Joey Porter and Kimo von Oelhoffen even got in on the act.

Since their last meeting, both teams have done an about face. The Steelers have gone 2-6 while the Bengals put together a winning streak, going 6-2 since Week 3. Will there be another change of fortunes after the second meeting?

At first glance, this may look like a mismatch. Cincinnati's offense is firing on all cylinders right now. The offensive line doesn't care who is running behind it and QB Jon Kitna is as confident as he's ever been in his football career. The Steelers defense has made second-string quarterbacks look like Pro Bowlers and they have even struggled to stuff the run at times.

Offensively for the Steelers, nothing is working right now. Pittsburgh is now the one with problems on the offensive line and QB Tommy Maddox has not found the rhythm that served him so well last season. The Bengals defense has faced much better competition and come out on top. DE Justin Smith expects to get up close and personal with Maddox, the Bengals certainly aiming to pressure a quarterback that has been sacked 29 times, good for 25th in the NFL.

But this game has little to do with how these two teams match up on paper. The Bengals during their worst of times have been a thorn in the side of the Steelers. Pittsburgh can return the favor this week, playing spoiler. The Steelers have been sleepwalking through 2003 and the win last week against Cleveland may have woken them up.

LB Kendrell Bell revisited his rookie form last Sunday, and the entire Steelers defense responded by smacking the Browns around. This physical play has been absent all year and portends a team that may not resemble the one that has struggled over its last eight games.

While the playoffs may already be lost for the Steelers, both teams are poised to awaken from their Freaky Friday remake that has lasted half a season. The Bengals have come a long way in a short time, but the Steelers are about to show their fans what might have been if Cowher could have managed to keep his team focused on the task at hand and their heads out of the Super Bowl clouds.

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