There are two ways to look at the Steelers' situation heading into the final quarter of the regular season.
Losers of two of their last three games, the Steelers failed to separate themselves from the pack of AFC teams vying for a playoff spot. But the positive is, after being 5-7 this time last season, Pittsburgh is in a far better position now and, in many ways, control their own destiny with four games to go.
With that being said, is Sunday's AFC North matchup with Cincinnati a must-win for the Black-and-Gold? From a mathematical standpoint, the answer is no. The Steelers could lose to the Bengals but win their remaining three games, putting them in position to make the playoffs as a 10-6 club. But from a psychological standpoint, Sunday's game certainly is a must-win.
A win in Cincinnati would give Pittsburgh five wins in their last seven games and, more importantly, would cut the Bengals' lead in the division to a half-game. It would also be a big momentum boost for a team needing to feel good about themselves after being undressed defensively at home against New Orleans the previous week. A win against the AFC North leader on Sunday could springboard a run similar to what the Steelers did in 2005 after defeating the Bears in Week 13, 21-9. Pittsburgh ran the table the rest of that season, all the way to their fifth Super Bowl title.
Living in the heart of Ohio (Columbus), I constantly chat with Bengals fans, and the consistent theme I take away from each conversation with them is the inferiority complex existing between the Bengals and Steelers. Maybe it's the constant losing to the Steelers that has now spanned three generations. Maybe it's the lingering effect of the 1990s, when Bengals fans were forced to watch their team suffer through the worst decade in NFL history by any team, ever. Maybe it's the memory of watching Carson Palmer writhe in pain in the 2005 Wild Card Game, a game the Steelers won en route to that Super Bowl win in Detroit. Maybe it's the memory of Santonio Holmes streaking down the sideline, dashing the hopes of another Bengals season the following year. Maybe it's the most recent Steelers win over the Bengals, a game that the 5-8 Steelers had no business dominating, but did anyway, casting a shadow of doubt into the minds of the Bengals and their fans that later proved prophetic when they collapsed against San Diego in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.
Regardless of why, the Bengals and their fans have a mental block relative to the Steelers which they have yet to completely overcome. They also have the stigma of not playing well in the spotlight, especially their quarterback, Andy Dalton, who is one more post-season collapse away from facing even more scathing scrutiny from the Bengals' fan base. Simply put, the Bengals are still the Steelers' kid brothers, and a Pittsburgh win on Sunday would be an emphatic reinforcement of where these teams stand in the NFL food chain.
A loss, well, that could change a lot of things. A loss could give the Bengals the spark they need to finally get over the hump. It would also give them a commanding lead in their division with just three games left. It would also put the Steelers at 7-6, with the last three games essentially being must-win affairs, if only to have a shot to make the playoffs. It would also be another mental blow to a Steelers team that needs some good vibes.
To me, Sunday's game is the defining moment of the Steelers' and Bengals' seasons. It will dictate where they are now and where they're heading. Make no mistake, Sunday's duel in Cincinnati is a must-win, and let's hope the Steelers play accordingly.