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Steelers and Bengals for AFC North Crown a perfect Christmas gift

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The football gods drew this one up properly. Two bitter rivals, for all the marbles on the final day, in the final game of the NFL's regular season. Christmas may come on Thursday, bur for Steelers and Bengals fans, the holiday celebration will be Sunday from Heinz Field when both teams battle for the division crown.

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It goes without saying that not many could have predicted this. Go back to October 12 and a crushing loss at Cleveland where the Browns dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 31-10 loss on the mistake by the lake. Most of the mistakes that day were made by the visitors, as a 21 point second quarter did the black and gold in that day, dropping them to 3-3 and very much questioning how the season might turn.

If you said after that day the Steelers would run off seven of nine wins and sit just 60 minutes from winning the AFC North, you my friend would have been in a very small circle of pundits to suggest such doings.

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The way the following three weeks played out for the club would prove to be the blueprint for the next nine games. The offense would dominate, while the defense would find its stride in both old and new in a run of play that allowed the Steelers to get to this point. A win on Sunday vs. a team they beat on the road by 21 points just three weeks ago will place the Steelers at home for a playoff game.

It is the holiday season and the gift that keeps on giving over the years are wins over division opponents at Heinz Field. The Steelers are 35-9 (including 4-0 in playoff games) with a 10-3 mark vs. the Bungals. That equates to a winning percentages of .714 during that span over the teams you need to beat the most if you want to claim the crown.

So what should we expect on Sunday? An Andy Dalton melt? Maybe a Bell ringing all night long as a way to cap a team MVP season? Or perhaps Big Ben doing what he has done since stepping on the turf 11 seasons ago? What way will this play out on Sunday and determine who takes down the title of AFC North champ and gets a home playoff game?

I don't believe I'm about to write this but I think the path to victory for the Steelers on Sunday night lies in the defense. Over the past three weeks, the Steelers are +4 in the turnover department, have registered nine sacks and have quietly moved up to 6th against the run in the NFL.

The injuries and sub-par play of Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, has forced some veterans and a few rookies as of late to step up and provide some much needed vigor in the defense. The play of Steve McLendon and Stephon Tuitt has helped to plug up running lanes and cause havoc with offensive lineman that allow the linebackers to do their job of pressuring the quarterback.

That is part of why you have seen nine sacks over three games, including six last week vs Kansas City. Jason Worilds and James Harrison were beastly, leading an aggressive pass rush that registered it's best game in nearly three seasons with six QB takedowns. But if you are going to talk about linebackers on this team, then you have to mention the one that has had a Pro Bowl season.

Lawrence Timmons has been a beast all season long. Consistent, steady play has led the 8th year vet to his 1st pro bowl selection. He leads the team in tackles, his third year in a row to do so, while ranking 3rd in the AFC in that department. Timmons has been a rock in what was an unstable group to being the year. His anchor has kept this ship afloat.

No matter how you size it up, Sunday's game should be a gem. I expect the Bengals to come ready to play and we won't see a similar game like we did at Paul Brown Stadium three weeks ago. What I do know is that you can't ask for a better way to wrap up a holiday weekend. Let's see if the gift inside the box is a Steelers win.

John Phillips is a radio personality for 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh and a columnist for Behind The Steel Curtain. Check him out on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.