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Steelers, Bengals go into playoff game with Andy Dalton on the brain

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Expect AJ McCarron to start Saturday (1:29)

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey breaks down why it appears AJ McCarron will start Saturday vs. the Steelers. (1:29)

Will he play or not?

That's the only question most Cincinnati fans care about having answered this week. In Pittsburgh, it's a query that doesn't take on quite the same significance, but it is still one the Steel City faithful are curious to hear a reply about.

Will Andy Dalton (right thumb) play in some capacity for the Cincinnati Bengals during Saturday night's wild-card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers?

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler are here to break down those chances for you, and so much more, ahead of Steelers-Bengals 3.0:

Fowler: Coley, what's your gut tell you, on a scale 1 to 10, on Dalton's chances for Saturday?

Harvey: Man, Jeremy, a lot of Bengals fans are going to be angry reading this, but I've got to go with a 1 that he starts and a 3 that he even dresses for the game. You and I both know gamesmanship is as much a part of the playoffs as bad blood is to this rivalry. For that reason, I wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals wait until inactives are announced at 6:45 p.m. ET Saturday before declaring Dalton out. That said, I do believe the Bengals have known all week about their plan at quarterback. It also was rather telling on Wednesday, when Dalton told reporters he had not yet thrown a football. He did show off his ability to grip a foam toy football, though. But grip or not, let's do the math: He hasn't thrown yet, just came out of a four-week cast on Monday ... yeah, I'm feeling confident in my 1.

You and I know both teams have said they want to clamp down on some of the extracurricular activity from the last meeting. But how much are you really buying that will be the case?

Fowler: I'm torn on this one, Coley, because on some level these guys absolutely despise each other. But they also know the officials will be watching each miniscuffle closely, ready to penalize or eject players. After the last game, the NFL probably sent a friendly message to officiating crews to lessen the theatrics. The potential catalyst is Vontaze Burfict. If he goes for Big Ben's legs again, it's over. Guys will be scrapping, but there's no way this will be as bad as their Dec. 13 matchup. Things got so bad that day that both teams seemed incapable of focusing on the game. The Steelers have been vocal about winning with physicality before the whistle. That's probably the right approach.

If Andy's out, what are you expecting from "Big Game A.J." this week?

Harvey: Wait, which "Big Game A.J." are you referring to, Jeremy? (Remember, there are three A.J.s on this team!) If we're talking about AJ McCarron, I'm expecting a big day. After all, this is a guy who led Alabama to a pair of national championships. He also went to Denver and had the Bengals toe to toe in a bout with the Broncos that went all the way to overtime. Although the Bengals lost that Monday night game when McCarron took his eyes off an overtime snap, it only reaffirmed the Bengals' belief that he could win in the playoffs. If he does, he'll be the first NFL quarterback since 1979 to win a playoff game with three or fewer previous career starts. As for the other "Big Game A.J.," A.J. Green caught six passes for 132 yards in the Steelers-Bengals matchup here last month, including a 66-yard touchdown -- all from McCarron after Dalton's thumb injury.

You know, to me, Big Ben's recent rash of turnovers has to have the Bengals optimistic about their chances. What have Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers said about preventing his recent interception issues?

Fowler: Keep throwing. Ha. The Steelers don't love the turnovers (six picks in the past three games), but the passing game is the reason Pittsburgh is in this position. Gotta ride the horses that got you here. DeAngelo Williams is questionable at best. The Steelers will basically run the ball just to try to keep Cincinnati honest. The onus is on Roethlisberger to win with his arm. He says he's staying aggressive. That's in his nature. The Bengals' secondary will have their opportunities to try to swing the game with a pick. But the key is Martavis Bryant. He had a sluggish past two weeks as defenses took away the deep ball. Roethlisberger wants to loosen up the passing lanes by spreading the ball around on short to intermediate routes, then going deep to Bryant.

Coley, why can the Bengals' defensive line win against a good Steelers offensive line?

Harvey: Remember Week 8? It's been easy to lose sight of the first meeting these teams had this year, which Dalton and the Bengals won 16-10 in Pittsburgh. Yes, the Steelers were the more physical of the two teams in the second game of the series; but don't forget, the injury to Dalton and the lack of a game plan for McCarron had an impact on Cincinnati's defense too. With the slightly out-of-sync offense moving in place for many of its McCarron-led possessions, the Bengals' defense was on the field a lot on Dec. 13 in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh held the ball for almost 36 minutes. Give McCarron a solid game plan and remove the after-the-whistle excess and you ought to see the Week 8 Bengals defense -- whose front hounded Roethlisberger for three sacks and forced him into throwing three interceptions. But Geno Atkins needs to have more than the three tackles he had in Games 1 and 2.

It looks like the weather in Cincy will be awful on Saturday, so the Bengals might have to keep the ball on the ground. How much could the Steelers' front seven impact the game that way, Jeremy?

Fowler: The Steelers fully believe they can win in Cincy. They want to take care of the run first, then hope their ability to get sacks and turnovers takes the game over. That doesn't mesh with what could be a conservative game plan for Cincinnati in efforts to protect McCarron. If Cincinnati gets more than 120 rushing yards, there's no reason why it shouldn't win. That would mean the Bengals are matriculating the ball downfield and McCarron can manage the game without making mistakes. That's bad news for the Steelers, who have trouble getting off the field on third downs. I get the sense the Steelers aren't fearing Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, though; they believe they can get stops straight up against this combo.