AFC North: Five things to watch

The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) can take another step toward securing the AFC North title and a first-round bye Thursday night when they play host to the Carolina Panthers (2-12). The Steelers had a short week to prepare for the Panthers after suffering a tough loss this past Sunday to the New York Jets.

Here are five things to watch in Pittsburgh:

1. Where is the home-field advantage? Traditionally, Heinz Field has been a house of horrors for visiting teams. But the Steelers have struggled mightily to protect their home field this year. Pittsburgh is a pedestrian 4-3 at home, but has an opportunity to finish strong in its final regular-season game at Heinz Field. If the Steelers win their last two contests, they will host a divisional round game in the playoffs. Overall, Pittsburgh has been much better on the road (6-1).

2. Winning without Troy: It's clear the Steelers are not the same team without Troy Polamalu. Dating to last season, Pittsburgh is 5-7 in games without its do-it-all safety. The Steelers would be wise not to overlook that stat and put forth their best effort against Carolina. Sure, the Panthers have the NFL's worst record. But that didn't stop inferior opponents such as the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders from upsetting Pittsburgh during last year's five-game losing streak without Polamalu.

3. Will the special teams bounce back? For the most part Pittsburgh has done a good job of curing its special-teams woes from the past few years. But some old habits showed up again last week in a 22-17 loss to the Jets. The Steelers' kick coverage struggled, as Brad Smith took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. The return set the tone for the rest of the game and turned out to be the difference. Pittsburgh also allowed 16 yards per punt return, which helped New York with field position. Big plays on special teams might be one of the few ways Carolina could pull off an upset.

4. Miller returns: Steelers starting tight end Heath Miller will make his return to the offense after missing the past two games with a concussion. Miller is one of the most underrated players on the team and will be a nice boost to Pittsburgh's passing and running game. Backup tight ends Matt Spaeth and David Johnson have been inconsistent , and Miller will bring much-needed stability to the position. He is third on the Steelers with 33 receptions for 384 yards and a touchdown.

5. Avoid injuries: The playoff-bound Steelers would do themselves a huge favor if they can put the Panthers away early and avoid major injuries. Pittsburgh, like most teams, is banged up at this late stage in the season and wants to get healthy for a playoff run. The good part about the Steelers playing on Thursday is they will get 10 days to rest and prepare for the Browns in Week 17. Taking care of business tonight would set up Pittsburgh well for the final week of the regular season and, eventually, the postseason.

Five things to watch: Bengals at Jets

November, 24, 2010
The Cincinnati Bengals (2-8) will try to break their NFL-high seven-game losing streak on Thanksgiving night against the New York Jets (8-2).

Here are five things to watch for the Bengals:

1. Will they show up? Here is the hard truth: The Bengals aren't going to win many games the rest of the season. At this stage, it's about playing for professional pride and not embarrassing themselves like last week when the Bengals allowed 35 unanswered points to the lowly Buffalo Bills. Cincinnati hasn't won a game since Sept. 26, which is nearly two months ago. But there is still enough talent on this roster to compete and possibly pull an upset or two in the final six weeks. But if the Bengals decide not to show up against a playoff-caliber team like the Jets, this game could get ugly fast.

2. Can T.O. thrive on Revis Island? The rivalry started in Buffalo, and it continues Thursday with the Bengals. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis once called Bengals receiver Terrell Owens a "slouch," and Owens responded this week by saying Revis is an "average' cornerback. These two players simply don't like each other. The Jets will match the physical Revis on Owens, while cornerback Antonio Cromartie plays against Chad Ochocinco. For Cincinnati to pull the upset, its receivers have to win these matchups.

3. How bad is Carson Palmer hurting? Credit Palmer for not making any excuses for his performance this season, but the quarterback is quietly dealing with several injuries. He took a painkilling injection in his shoulder to play two weeks ago against the Indianapolis Colts, and this week he missed more practice time with a left foot injury. Expect a lot of pressure from the blitz-heavy Jets. Palmer has been sacked 17 times this season, which isn't a very high total. He's getting rid of the ball quickly while taking plenty of hits behind a subpar offensive line.

4. Will the Bengals eliminate mistakes? Owens said it best this week: "We have made enough mistakes the last six ballgames to last a lifetime." The Bengals are one of the sloppiest NFL teams this year. They've committed costly turnovers and penalties time after time and haven't been able to clean up that problem. Last week against Buffalo, Cincinnati had seven penalties and three turnovers. The Bengals have to play a lot smarter to have a chance on the road against the Jets.

5. How will younger players perform? At 2-8, the record provides an opportunity for Cincinnati's younger players to step up. Closely monitor rookies such as tight end Jermaine Gresham, receiver Jordan Shipley and defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. With the Bengals due for a major offseason makeover, these young players need to develop and prove they're a part of Cincinnati's foundation in 2011. All four rookies have shown flashes but need to be consistently productive.