The Steelers promise to be on their best behavior this time.
"I think we'll be as professional as we possibly can (be)," safety Will Allen said about Pittsburgh's second trip to Cincinnati in as many months, this time in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs. "Play within the rules. No one wants to lose players for the playoffs or anything."
Does this seem hard for you to believe? Did you see these two teams on Dec. 13, when officials ran out of flags inside their black slacks, and the NFL later fined Steelers and Bengals players nearly $140,000 combined for after-the-play issues?
Yes, Pittsburgh-Cincinnati 3.0 promises to be a quality Saturday evening of football. Maybe the players will tone down the dirty hits, but the physicality and intensity will be palpable with each play.
To help you prepare for the 8:15 p.m. ET matchup in Paul Brown Stadium, ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey broke down the teams in five categories.
1. Loaded rosters
Harvey: Jeremy, the talent on both of these teams’ rosters is absolutely insane. Antonio Brown? A.J. Green? Ben Roethlisberger? Vontaze Burfict? Geno Atkins? Are you kidding me? While a case could be made for the Steelers having the better offense, the overall team edge goes to the Bengals. Even if Pittsburgh’s offense is better, it isn’t like it laps Cincinnati's. A unit averaging 26.2 points per game isn’t one to dismiss. The Bengals’ defense was second in the league with 17.4 points allowed per game.
Fowler: I don't disagree with you here, Coley. But it's close. Very close. The Steelers' receivers and quarterback make this interesting, and the investment of several high draft picks in the defensive front seven resulted in 48 sacks, the third-highest total in the league in 2015. They stop the run with that front too. But the Bengals have more overall talent in the defensive backfield, are slightly better on the offensive line and get the edge at tight end with Tyler Eifert. That's enough to crown Cincinnati here.
2. Getting physical
Fowler: Pacman Jones is the guy I least want to mess with on social media. But the Steelers took the fight to Cincinnati last time. And they want another fight this week. They believe they have a big brother/little brother advantage on the Bengals unless Cincinnati gets a playoff win over them. This game could change the tenor of the relationship forever. But until proven otherwise, the Steelers bang a little harder. I thought Pittsburgh's offensive line won up front in the last matchup.
Harvey: The Bengals would never admit this, but from a physicality standpoint, the Steelers owned them in last month’s game. Nearly all the personal-foul penalties belonged to Pittsburgh. On the second play of the game, Steelers safety Mike Mitchell set the fine-earning tone when he blasted Tyler Eifert on a helmet-to-helmet hit that forced Eifert to miss the next two games with a concussion. From tweets to on-field chirps, this rivalry definitely has a serious edge.
3. Reason to be optimistic
Harvey: History isn’t the Bengals’ friend: They are 16-44 combined in playoff games, prime-time games and games against Pittsburgh since Marvin Lewis took over in 2003. Still, their defense has generated seven turnovers in the past three games. Roethlisberger has thrown six interceptions himself in that same time span. If the Bengals are to win on Saturday, their defense has to keep getting backup quarterback AJ McCarron the football.
Fowler: The Steelers’ offense is going to put up some numbers. It almost always gets yards, and the points will come if Roethlisberger reduces the interceptions. But the Steelers have a chance to win the game defensively, since McCarron shouldn't scare them. They'll respect McCarron, and he has improved since the last time the teams met (McCarron threw two interceptions in a Steelers win), but if the Steelers can contain the running game, which they usually do, they believe McCarron won't beat them on his own.
4. Injury factor
Fowler: Andy Dalton's thumb issues certainly are a major factor, but Cincinnati won 12 games in part because it stayed so healthy. The Steelers are sort of lucky to be in this position after several key injuries almost wrecked their season. The Steelers are fortunate several backups have performed well, but they are much more depleted than Cincinnati as a whole. DeAngelo Williams is considered day-to-day, but if he struggles on his injured ankle during the week, the Steelers would be turning to seldom-used Fitz Toussaint at running back for the biggest game of the year.
Harvey: Andy Dalton’s right thumb has sent Who Dey Nation into a tizzy the past month. With Marvin Lewis admitting Monday the Bengals are preparing for Saturday’s game as if McCarron will be their starter, it appears likely Dalton will miss yet another game. The quarterback’s injury is about the only one Cincinnati currently is dealing with. Eifert is back after time away due to the concussion.
5. Hottest matchup
Harvey: Without question, the Bengals have the edge in the matchup between A.J. Green and the Steelers’ cornerbacks. He has had six or more catches in all but two of his 10 career games against Pittsburgh. He also has touchdowns in three of the past four meetings.
Fowler: I'm watching Antonio Brown against Pacman Jones or Dre Kirkpatrick or whichever Bengals corner lines up against him. The only corner to slow Brown this season was Richard Sherman. Otherwise, he has had his way with everyone he has faced. He is the game's prettiest receiver -- against the game's scrappiest corner in Jones. More of that matchup, please.