Historically, the NFL playoffs reward us for sticking through the long, 16-game regular season by generating can’t-miss matchups. That will definitely be the case when two AFC North rivals square off in primetime on Saturday night to get the ball rolling on the 2015-16 postseason. These two rivals are the Cincinnati Bengals (who will host the game) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (maybe the luckiest team in professional sports). Whenever two familiar opponents get together, the result is usually an entertaining, well-fought game. Add in the playoff atmosphere and you could have the game of the weekend in Cincinnati. With that, here’s our breakdown of the Wild Card Weekend matchup, along with our predicted outcome.
The case for the Steelers
Pittsburgh was a bit wishy-washy this season, losing to opponents they should have beaten, such as the Ravens, and beating opponents they could have easily lost to, like the Broncos. Despite their somewhat inconsistent play, the Steelers found a way to sneak into the postseason (thanks in part to the Buffalo Bills) as the No. 6 seed in the AFC. What you have to like about Pittsburgh is pretty obvious. Their offense has turned into one of the best in the league behind Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and DeAngelo Williams. They constantly make big plays and can overcome even the largest deficits (ask the Broncos).
On the other hand, the Steelers defense has been suspect at times, ranking in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed. Their high number of giveaways is also a concern, especially since postseason games are generally pretty close and often come down to a handful of plays. Overall, the Steelers’ roster looks strong. If they get rolling on offense, they become nearly impossible to beat. They are also decently healthy, although the status of Williams is questionable at this point. Regardless, they should give Cincinnati plenty of problems when they face off on Saturday.
The case for the Bengals
After beginning the season 8-0, many were ready to include the Bengals in the conversation of Super Bowl favorites. Since then, however, things have taken a turn for this talented roster. While the defense is playing well, the loss of QB Andy Dalton is a major concern for Cincinnati as they begin their playoff run. Dalton was having an MVP-caliber season before injuring his thumb a few weeks ago, and his status is uncertain at best for this game against Pittsburgh. Dalton’s absence really affects the ability of the offense to consistently produce points and sustain drives.
If Dalton can’t play, the Bengals will have to rely on second-year pro A.J. McCarron to lead to offense. McCarron has been solid at quarterback, but he doesn’t have the same level of experience as Dalton. Cincinnati could do much worse at backup, but not having their regular starter could set them back in a big way this weekend. As we mentioned, the Bengals’ defense is good enough to win this game and others in the postseason — even if their offense isn’t producing.
Behind players like Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, their defense ranks second in the league in points allowed (the most critical defensive statistic). They know how to create pressure and how to create turnovers, making them one of the most dangerous units in the NFL. Not having Dalton hurts, but Cincinnati still has more than enough skill to win this game, which would earn them their first postseason victory since 1990.
So, who wins?
This should be a tight matchup that will test one of the best offenses in the league against one of the best defenses in the league. Of all the games during Wild Card Weekend, this one seems to have the best chance of producing a memorable outcome. It should absolutely be a part of any NFL fan’s plans on Saturday evening. With that said, we think that Pittsburgh has more momentum at this point and, frankly, a better overall roster. Their ability to make plays versus the Bengals’ potential inability to do so should be too much for Cincinnati to overcome. Despite being the road team, expect the Steelers to pull out the win.