Playoff football arrives early for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Not that any manufactured intensity is required for these longtime division rivals meeting for the second time in 2023 in a high-stakes grudge match with postseason position on the line.
Much has changed since the Steelers (7-7) held on for a 16-10 win over the Bengals (8-6) in Cincinnati on Nov. 26.
“I think we continue to improve week-to-week and there are some things we need to get better at,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I think the team is in the right mindset right now. We know it’s going to be a tough battle going on the road – 4:30, Pittsburgh – always a big challenge for us, these divisional games. Pittsburgh is a really good football team. I know they’ve lost the last couple, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not in for a big-time fight. Our guys are going to be prepared for that.”
The Steelers have lost three straight, temporarily lost starting quarterback Kenny Pickett, benched his backup Mitch Trubisky, lost starting safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to a knee injury and their other starting safety – Damontae Kazee – was suspended.
Cincinnati quarterback Jake Browning was making his first NFL start in that game and generated a concerning 222 yards of total offense.
Browning and the Bengals are back on their feet. The Bengals enter Week 16 with three straight wins, including a pair of overtime victories, and currently sit ahead of Pittsburgh and in playoff position in the packed AFC postseason picture.
Browning has completed 76 percent of his passes since Week 12 and thrown for more than 1,000 yards in his first four NFL starts, the only NFL quarterback to do so since 1950.
Under interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner, the Steelers have scored just 41 points in three losses.
“Our problems in a couple of these last few games have been penalties and shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Faulkner.
Mason Rudolph took over for Trubisky in last week’s loss to the Colts and will make his first start since 2021 this week unless Pickett can return from ankle surgery.
“I’ve got a lot of good relationships with the guys in the locker room,” Rudolph said. “I think anytime you’re here as long as I’ve been here, you had better have some or you’re probably not a good dude.
“Guys are excited for me and I’m excited to go out there and you know, you think as it has a third-string quarterback, you feel like you’re sort really earning your paycheck week to week. And so I finally get to earn it this week and put my hand in the pile and go fight for victory together.”
While playoff probability metrics reveal odds of 64 percent to make the playoffs with a win this week, it’s not all roses and balloons for the Bengals, either.
The Bengals are one of four 8-6 teams entering Week 16 and they have games remaining at Kansas City (9-5) and against the current AFC No. 5 seed Cleveland Browns (9-5).
Cincinnati marches ahead without starting nose tackle and run-stopper DJ Reader. He’s gone for the season with a torn quad tendon in his right leg and backup rookie corner DJ Ivey landed on injured reserve with a torn left ACL.
Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase injured his right shoulder in the overtime win against Minnesota and did not practice this week. He’s not expected to play. The Steelers could be without multiple defensive starters again, with veteran defensive back Eric Rowe and current practice squad linebacker Myles Jack in line to be elevated before Saturday’s game.
“I think the whole league has that type of attrition,” Steelers linebacker Elandon Roberts said. “It’s a long season. We can’t use it for an excuse. Obviously, our fans and the media don’t care. We have to just focus up and come out there and do our best to be victorious.
The Bengals are coming off a thrilling 27-24 overtime win against Minnesota last week in which Cincinnati erased a 14-point deficit going into the fourth quarter. Browning finished 29 of 42 for 324 yards, with 243 coming after halftime.
Cincinnati has won four of the past six meetings since December 2020, but the Steelers took two of the past three.
–Field Level Media