The Steelers will travel to Cincinnati to face the Bengals next Sunday at 4:30 p.m. The Steelers have won three of their last four games against the Bengals, but any happiness over the match-up was sparse in the Steelers' locker room.
The tone was set by Coach Bill Cowher, who walked into the media room at Heinz Field for his post-game press conference just as the New England Patriots were taking the last snap of regulation at the Miami Dolphins' 5-yard line.
Cowher began talking about his team's play on special teams when he noticed everyone else was watching a TV in the corner of the room.
"You guys watching something?" Cowher asked.
When told New England had just scored a touchdown, Cowher asked the reporters if they wanted to watch the two-point conversion attempt.
The reporters answered with a question: "Don't you?"
"Nah," Cowher said. "Let me know."
Of course the Patriots failed, so the Steelers did not have to travel to New England. Cowher didn't care, though. Center Jeff Hartings said those feelings were shared by the rest of the team.
"It's really a bad idea to have a predetermined opinion about why we match up with this team better or not because you might have to play New England anyway down the line," he said. "It's not about getting past the first round. That's just the first step. When you're thinking about the goals we have … right now all we care about is the next team."
But the Steelers do match up well against the Bengals. In two wins over the Bengals last year and in one this year, the Steelers averaged 179 yards rushing at 4.2 yards per each of the 42.3 times they averaged running the ball.
In the game they lost last month, the Steelers rushed only 28 times for 95 yards (3.4 avg.) against the Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 386 yards, but the Steelers lost the division title that day, 38-31.
Why did the Steelers give up on the run?
"I don't know if I'd call it giving up on the run," Hartings said. "We went in last time thinking if they put that safety down in there, we're going to try to throw the ball. They did, and we put up 31 points and over 300 yards passing. It wasn't a bad decision."
The Bengals, though, appear ripe for the plucking. They're not only soft against the run, they're mired in a funk. They lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 37-3 Sunday, a week after losing to the Buffalo Bills at home, and three weeks after surviving the Cleveland Browns at home by a field goal.
The Steelers, on the other hand, will go to Cincinnati riding a hot streak. They've won four consecutive games since losing to the Bengals in the game that determined the AFC North Division championship.
In a sense, the Bengals woke the Steelers up.
"Since then, we've played in every type of ball game you can think of," said Hines Ward. "We've learned a lot from it and hopefully it'll carry over into the playoffs and get us to where we need to go."
Ergo, the poor play of the Bengals should also carry over into the playoffs.
"Yes, in that respect, yes, that's true," Ward said. "But it's their first time in the playoffs in a long time. Their fans will be excited. We used to own this division but they're the division champions. It's a rematch. It's the best-of-three. So all the players in here, we're looking forward to it. It's going to be exciting. You don't want to miss this game."
Ward then admitted what most others in the locker room wouldn't about the Bengals: the Steelers want their thunder back.
"Yeah," Ward said. "We really wanted to win our division. Cincinnati came in and did what they had to do. Now, everything's on the line so loser go home. That's how we're approaching it."
Deep down, the Steelers have to be elated about their draw.
"I am," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "We know we can go into Cincinnati and win. We've done it before and I think we have a little chip on our shoulder. They came in here and stole one from us."
And now the Steelers want it back.