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Steelers face major test in Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been the bully against the Cincinnati Bengals. For the better part of the last 40 years, it is the Steelers who dictate the AFC North (and before 2002, the Central) while other teams hope to knock them off. Most of the time, only the Baltimore Ravens have had any success.

In 2015, things are different. The Bengals are the best in the North with a 10-2 record and can clinch the division at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday afternoon, when the two teams meet for the second time this year. In the first meeting, Ben Roethlisberger was coming off a knee injury and played an average game, as Cincinnati pulled out a late, gritty win at Heinz Field.

This time around, the two teams are both playing at a very high level and outside of Pittsburgh being without running back Le’Veon Bell (torn ACL) both teams are very healthy. Cincinnati put it on the Cleveland Browns last week, beating them 37-3 in a game that was every bit as ugly as the score. The Steelers also looked like a team to be reckoned with, pounding the listless Indianapolis Colts by a 45-10 score on Sunday Night Football.

For the Bengals, this is an important game on a few levels. First, the division can be won and the chase for a top seed in the AFC playoff picture can be helped. If the season ended today, the Bengals would be the first seed in the conference, giving them home-field advantage throughout the postseason. However, a loss against Pittsburgh could cripple those hopes, with the New England Patriots facing a soft schedule the rest of the way, and who are also at 10-2.

The Steelers have even more on the line. Pittsburgh is 7-5 but actually sitting on the outside of the playoff picture heading into Week 14. Pittsburgh loses out to the Kansas City Chiefs on a tiebreaker because of their head-to-head loss back in Week 7. The Steelers also fall short of the New York Jets because of a conference record issue.

Pittsburgh has to be looking at its final four games and be thinking that this is, by far, the toughest game left on its schedule. After traveling to take on Cincinnati, the Steelers come home to play the Denver Broncos before traveling to play the Baltimore Ravens and then close at FirstEnergy Stadium against the rancid Cleveland Browns.

This is the best game of the week on the NFL schedule. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati both need the win for two completely different reasons, making it a marquee matchup between two teams that have been getting after each other since 1970, when Paul Brown and Chuck Noll were roaming the sideline.

With the NFL entering its fourth quarter, it is time to sit back and buckle up.

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