Steelers take on Bengals in wild card match-up at Paul Brown Stadium

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Photo used courtesy of: Andy McLemore. (CC) Some rights reserved.

The Steelers take on the Bengals at 8:15 Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati in an epic wild card clash between two bitter AFC North foes.

If that last part sounds familiar to you, it should, as Pittsburgh was in the same 3 vs. 6 match-up last year on Wild Card Weekend. Only that time, the Steelers were the division winners and the third seed, while Baltimore, a team that had to sneak into the playoffs with a win and some help in the final week of the regular season, was the sixth seed. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the Ravens dominated the action most of the evening in a 30-17 win at Heinz Field.

The outcome may have been different, had it not been for the serious knee injury suffered by running back Le’Veon Bell in the Week 17 victory over the Bengals that clinched Pittsburgh’s first AFC North crown in four years.

This time around, the Steelers enter the playoffs as the sixth seed, after winning and getting some help from Buffalo in Week 17, and they will be facing a Cincinnati team that clinched the AFC North crown with a 12-4 record.

Unfortunately, the Steelers enter their second-straight playoff tournament with running back health issues. DeAngelo Williams, who took over the starting role when Bell was lost for the rest of the year with a torn MCL in the first match-up against Cincinnati on November 1 at Heinz Field, suffered a foot sprain in the victory over the Browns in Week 17, and all signs point to him not being healthy enough for Saturday’s match-up.

In his place will likely be Fitzgerald Toussaint, he of the 42 career rushing yards. Unlike last year, however, while Williams was certainly productive in his 11 starts, he wasn’t the focal-point in 2015 that Bell was in 2014. The Steelers passing-attack is much more potent this year, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger averaging 328 yards per game, and Antonio Brown, again, the most productive wide receiver in the NFL with 136 catches for 1,834 yards.

The Steelers certainly have enough fire-power to put points on the board vs. Cincinnati, provided Roethlisberger gets decent protection and doesn’t turn the ball over multiple times, like he did over the final three weeks of the season (six interceptions).

And it’s not like the Bengals don’t have their injury problems. Andy Dalton is expected to miss his fourth-straight game with the broken thumb he suffered in the previous meeting against the Steelers on December 13 at Paul Brown Stadium. A.J. McCarron is expected to get the start, and while he’s been fairly good, he will be playing in his first postseason game.

When McCarron entered the game against the Steelers six weeks ago, he threw 280 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw two interceptions that led to 14 points in a 33-20 victory for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers simply must get after McCarron and force similar mistakes and not allow him to be as comfortable as Ryan Mallett was two weeks ago, when he passed for 274 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 upset victory by the Ravens that almost cost Pittsburgh a playoff spot.

The recipe for the Steelers during the 2015 season was forcing timely turnovers on defense and, of course, utilizing their many weapons on offense. As long as Roethlisberger takes care of the football, the Steelers should win Saturday’s game fairly-easily, despite playing on the road.

Prediction: Steelers 23, Bengals 13.

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