CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 13: Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes for a two-yard touchdown in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on November 13, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steelers won 24-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
We're just about 14 hours away from kickoff between the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) in an AFC showdown with divisional and wild card implications. Clearly Cincinnati 'needs' the win more so than Pittsburgh. Despite sporting a 6-3 AFC record, the Bengals lose out to the Broncos on a head-to-head tiebreaker. I wrote it back in Week 2 when the Bengals lost inexcusably to the Broncos, 22-24 -- that would be the game that they'd look back on as the one that cost them a chance at making the playoffs. We'll see if the Broncos can go 3-2, or gasp, 4-1, down the stretch. But assuming the Bengals don't catch the Ravens, they'll need to finish a game clear of Denver if it's those two teams that are contending for the sixth and final playoff spot.
For the Steelers, a win all but guarantees they make the playoffs. And for at least another week, it keeps the pressure on Baltimore to keep winning if they're going to stave off the Steelers for the divisional title.
Back to Sunday's game though. We've seen the Steelers struggle offensively at various stages of the season, most recently against the Chiefs last Sunday night. I don't see it happening against the Bengals in Week 13 though for several reasons. Firstly, I think the fact that they played so poorly last week ultimately helped Tomlin and his staff keep the attention and focus of the team this week. Don't forget, the Steelers play on Thursday night in Week 14, so you better believe they emphasized the need to not waste on sec of practice or meeting time this week in anticipation of the shortened window to prepare for Cleveland.
think hope the Steelers' mini-flurry of turnovers will continue. After a historically low volume of takeaways in the first half of the season, the Steelers are heading back towards the mean having forced six takeaways in their last two games.
Thirdly, Rashard Mendenhall has fared well against the Bengals in recent memory, and when No. 34 is having anything more than just moderate success, it's awfully hard to slow down the Steelers' offense (even if they do are apt to leave points on the board once inside the red zone). And for whatever reason, Mendenhall seems to find the endzone against the Bengals with far more frequency than when he's running against any other NFL team not named Cleveland. Mendenhall scored twice in the Steelers' 24-17 win in Week 10, giving him three scores in his past three against Cincinnati (he scored in Pittsburgh's 27-21 Week 9 win in '10).
I still believe in Mendenhall's ability in a big way, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed in his approach this season. After watching him battle against the New York Jets in last year's AFC Championship Game, I am convinced he can be one of the game's more punishing backs -- including only those who also have breakaway speed which Mendenhall does. Perhaps he's not cut from the exact same cloth as Marshawn 'Beast Mode' Lynch -- a 'back I've watched regularly this year in what will be my last season as a resident of Seattle -- but I know he could be averaging 4.1 yards or so per pop instead of just 3.8 if he made a commitment to putting his head down and running angry.
C'mon Mendy. Do me proud tomorrow. Go Steelers!