With five weeks remaining in the regular season, the Steelers and Bengals are both 6-5, tied for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. When it comes to judging which team looks like a playoff team, it's not such a close call.
Over the past three weeks, the Steelers struggled to beat the one-win Chiefs in overtime (with Ben Roethlisberger) and lost to the Ravens and Browns (without Roethlisberger). The Bengals, meanwhile, have won three straight games by at least 18 points for the first time since 1976.
What's going on with the Steelers these days? Rashard Mendenhall is being removed as the starting running back, right tackle Mike Adams is out with an ankle sprain and Mike Wallace is apparently on the outs with coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers can get a lift when Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu return from injuries, but time is starting to run out on Pittsburgh.
The Bengals have bounced back from a four-game losing streak with some attitude. In the three-game winning streak, quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. And the defense is allowing 9.6 points over the past three weeks, which includes giving up two touchdowns.
“The anticipation comes down to these last five [games] now and what they mean and how important they are,” coach Marvin Lewis told reporters Monday. “We’re in OK position. We’re not in great position, but we’re in OK position. And we’ve got to improve upon it each and every week.”
The last five opponents for the Steelers and Bengals both have a combined 27-28 record (.491). They play three common opponents in December (Baltimore, San Diego and Dallas). One difference is the Steelers face the Browns (3-8) and the Bengals play at the Eagles (3-8).
It could come down to the final meeting between the Steelers and Bengals, which will be at Heinz Field in the second-to-last week of the season. If the Steelers can complete a season sweep of the Bengals, they would hold the tiebreaker edge over Cincinnati.
This Sunday, the Steelers play at the Ravens while the Bengals are at the Chargers.