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AFC Wild Card Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals

January 9, 2016 • Ben Heck • AFC, AFC North, Cincinnati Bengals, Features, Front Page, NFL Playoffs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Predictions, Preview

Despite these last three weeks of play, Ben Roethlisberger has played some of the best football of his career in 2014 and 2015. And All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown has put up the best two-year stretch of any receiver in NFL history.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t be highly challenged against AFC North rival Cincinnati, on the road, tonight.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will not be ready to go against Pittsburgh for tonight’s Wild Card match-up, leaving the inexperienced backup A.J. McCarron to start his fourth consecutive game under center. But that shouldn’t be a huge deal, given that he’s performed fairly well over the last few starts and he’s going up against a struggling Pittsburgh secondary.

But one injury that does concern me for this match-up: Pittsburgh RB DeAngelo Williams. He has been ruled out for the game, and with starter Le’Veon Bell on the injured reserve for much of the season, Pittsburgh’s offense is left with very few options at running back. Last week in the victory over Cleveland, Pittsburgh ran for only 30 yards, and two weeks prior to that just 23 yards.

Fortunately, both games ended with victories––over Denver and Cleveland––with the passing attack leading the way. But things could be different this time around. They’ll be leaning primarily on Fitzgerald Toussaint out of the backfield, who has just 18 carries for 42 yards this season and 54 yards on 24 carries for his entire two-year career.

Going up against a defensive front that does well at stopping the run, the rushing attack of Pittsburgh will be non-existent as it has been numerous times this season.

However, this season Pittsburgh’s offense has produced 62 or fewer yards on the ground five different times, and they’ve managed to put up a 4-1 record during those games. In games they’ve produced under 100 rushing yards, Pittsburgh is 6-1 (including a 33-20 Week 14 victory over McCarron’s Bengals). So while having Toussaint as primary back on the road in the biggest game of the season sounds like a huge concern, they’ve proven this season that it’s a situation that they’re able to overcome.

As for Cincinnati’s offense, going up against Pittsburgh’s defense that sits at 30th in the league in passing yards allowed, they’ll need to do everything they can to protect McCarron in the pocket. While no defender for Pittsburgh has any more than 7.0 sacks this season, they’ve produced 47.0 as a team (third-most in the NFL). In fact, seven players have at least 4.0 sacks this season. They can get after the opposing quarterback, and will create pressure in all situations against the inexperienced QB tonight.

Luckily for fans of high-scoring games, I expect this one to turn into a gun-slinging shootout between a QB with two Super Bowl rings and a 10-5 career postseason record (Roethlisberger), and a 25-year old making his fourth career start and first-ever playoff appearance (McCarron).

Sadly, this could end up being Cincinnati’s seventh straight one-and-done in the postseason. If they lose tonight, they’d tie the Lions and Chiefs for the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history.

Prediction: Pittsburgh, despite not having a viable rushing attack, protects the quarterback well, limits offensive turnovers, and puts up just enough points to pull off the road upset, 31-28.

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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