Bengals in driver’s seat in AFC North

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Unless the Cincinnati Bengals completely fall apart, the Steelers will be battling for a wild card spot in order to make the playoffs. The Bengals put themselves in the driver’s seat Sunday with an 18-12 victory over Pittsburgh.

After playing their best game of the season against the Denver Broncos last week, the Steeler offense played their worst game against the Bengals, and the only reason it wasn’t a blowout was the outstanding play of the defense once again that kept them in the game.

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TOUGH YARDAGE—Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall found it tough going against the Bengals as he was held to just 36 yards rushing.

The difference, again, was the special teams giving up a long kickoff return for a touchdown. Rookie Bernard Scott ripped off a 96-yard return for a touchdown, the extra point was missed. The runback was the difference in the game. Special teams have been a problem all year and if the Steelers expect to make it to the playoffs something has to be done to correct this problem. Currently, they are among the worst in the league, not only allowing run backs for touchdowns, but allowing teams to establish good field position that leads to scores and puts added pressure on the defense.

The defense, despite losing Troy Polamalu to an injury, held the potent Bengals offense in check, only giving up four field goals for 12 points. Cedric Benson, who came into the game second in the league in rushing behind Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans, was injured in the first half after running for only 22 yards on seven carries. Scott subbed, picking up 33 yards on 13 carries. The air attack wasn’t much better as Carson Palmer was held to just 18 completions on 30 tries for 178 yards. His star receiver Chad Ochocinco was held to just two catches for 29 yards. Laveranues Coles had a decent game with five catches for 67 yards.

The offense once again fell asleep in the second half scoring only three points. In all fairness to the Bengals they have one of the better defensive units in the game, but much of the ineffectiveness of the offense came at their own hands. Ben Roethlisberger may have had his worst game going 20 for 40 for 174 yards and no touchdowns, as he continually over and under threw receivers, and once again ignored Hines Ward, who only caught four passes for 24 yards. However, the biggest problem in the air attack is that he continuously under throws rookie Mike Wallace. Either he has a weak arm, which I doubt, or he continues to underestimate this kid’s’ speed. This is something they need to practice. Or maybe they should watch the Tom Brady, Randy Moss show in New England. This is an offensive coordinators dream.

Another big mistake was abandoning the running game. Rashard Mendenhall only had 36 yards on 13 carries but looked impressive at times. But for some reason they went almost totally away from the ground game. The Steelers have become a passing team but no one dimensional team is going anywhere in the playoffs this season. As good as Palmer is, they still run the ball with Benson. The Steelers have got to start balancing their attack or they will find themselves watching the playoffs on TV.

Santonio Holmes had a solid game with seven catches for 88 yards and Heath Miller had four catches for 26 yards. Roethlisberger has a tendency to go to Holmes a little too much, overlooking his other receivers.

The Bengals are still not home free. Their next three games against the Oakland Raiders (2-7), Cleveland Browns (1-8) and the Detroit Lions (1-8) will be a walk in the park but three of the final four will be against tough opponents—the Minnesota Vikings (8-1), San Diego Chargers (6-3), Kansas City Chiefs (2-7) and New York Jets (4-5).

The Steelers, on the other hand, have an even tougher finish, with four of their final seven games against stiff opponents. They will face Kansas City, the Baltimore Ravens twice, Oakland, Cleveland, the Green Bay Packers (5-4) and the Miami Dolphins (4-5).

This week should hold easy victories for both teams. However, if either stumble against one of their weak opponents, it will open the door for the other, and possibly let the Ravens back into the race. If the season ended today the Steelers would be in the playoffs. They are tied with the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers. One of those teams will win the AFC West, the loser will vie for the wild card spot with the Steelers. There are several teams with four losses that will keep the pressure on the front runners to keep on winning. The Indianapolis Colts (9-0) remained in the driver’s seat in the AFC with an amazing come from behind 35-34 victory over the New England Patriots to remain undefeated. The Patriots stayed on top of the AFC East with a 6-3 record with the Chargers and Broncos tied at the top of the AFC West.

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