The Wild Card game tonight should be an epic rubber match between two bitter rivals that rack up fines greater than the GNP's of some nations of the world. Winner moves on, loser goes home, and both teams don't want to be sent home by a team that they despise. There are tons of storylines in this game and many key matchups. Consider these as integral to the outcome of the game.
LB Ryan Shazier with help from safeties vs TE Tyler Eifert
Possibly overshadowed by the injury to Dalton, Eifert's injury was critical to Cincinnati last time around. If Eifert plays, it could have been a much different outcome. With twelve touchdowns on the season, Eifert is dangerous to a team that struggles against top-tier tight ends.
Ryan Shazier is the fastest linebacker and will see action against Eifert, but DC Keith Butler will surely have a plan to have multiple guys try and thwart this threat.
CB William Gay vs WR AJ Green
We all know the extent that Green has owned the Steelers in his career. Green has 556 yards in his last four games vs Pittsburgh. They can't afford to let him get deep, so he most likely will see a cushion.
Gay has had success in Cincy. He's had a pick-six in each of his last two games there. The Steelers are going to rotate corners, but Gay is the best of the bunch lately and should see significant time against Green.
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs LB Vontez Burfict
Say what you want about Burfict, but he is a defensive force. Everybody will draw Burfict at some point in the game, even during pre game.
Roethlisberger has been enigmatic lately, but he's a big time player in a big time game. If he can make smart throws and not throw in desperation, he can light it up. Avoiding Burfict, who was fined for trying to take his legs out, will be a huge challenge in this game.
WR Martavis Bryant vs CB Leon Hall
With Antonio Brown likely to be blanketed by Dre Kirkpatrick, Pac Man Jones, Reggie Nelson and quite possibly Venus Flytrap, It's crucial for Martavis to break out of his funk. On the heels of Big Ben's wakeup call, Bryant will be under intense scrutiny to see if he will answer the challenge.
Hall was listed on the injury report this week with a bad back and concussion, but will play. Hall has two picks and eight pass defenses on the year and most likely will be drawing Bryant, but the corners may shift around.
Steelers Offensive Line vs Bengals Defensive Line
Carlos Dunlap (13.5 sacks), Geno Atkins (11 sacks), Domata Peko (5 sacks) and Michael Johnson (5 sacks) make up one of the most dominant front fours in the game today. But the Steelers kept them off of Ben's back last time out. If these guys get penetration and harass Roethlisberger, it will be a long night for Steeler Nation.
Mike Munchak's group has really gelled. Boasting an All-Pro (David DeCastro), the line has been consistent. Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace and Marcus Gilbert will have their giant hands full, but have proved that they can lock it down against Cincy this year.
The war in the trenches will be fun to watch.
Other Things To Consider
We can probably point out five more important matchups, so here are some key players that can impact this game
When Jeremy Hill gets over 15 carries, the Bengals are undefeated. With Hill and Giovanni Bernard coming out of the backfield, the Steelers need to continue the trend from the last game and keep this dynamic duo in check.
AJ McCarron played on the biggest stage in college, winning two National Championships at Alabama. He's cocky and confident and playing well enough to be 2-1 as a starter, albeit the teams that he has defeated have less wins combined than the Bengals. McCarron was 22 for 32 with 280 yards in relief of Dalton vs Pittsburgh. He has the weapons and could be dangerous.
Heath Miller had 60 receptions on the season and 22 came against Cincinnati. He will be relied on to help against the pass rush, but will serve as Ben's safety valve.