by Mike Hayes - 01/04/2006
The third time will prove to be the charm for either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh as the Bengals and Steelers, who split their regular season games, will meet in first round playoff action Sunday.
Kickoff is slated for 4:30 p.m. EST in a game that will be televised on CBS.
Although they were crowned North Division champs, the Bengals find themselves in the rather dubious position of being the only home team not favored to win this weekend.
The Steelers, who like the Bengals finished at 11-5 on the year but lost the division title as a result of tiebreakers, have been made a 3-point favorite in this game with the over-under figure set as high as 46. Money-liner bettors have to lay -158 or -160 on Pittsburgh while Bengal backers will get odds of +138 or +140.
Not only is this the Bengals first trip to the playoffs since 1990, when after winning a wild card game they dropped a division game 20-10 against the then Los Angeles Raiders, it is their first winning season since that 9-7 year.
Contrast that to the Steelers who have qualified for the postseason in 11 of the past 14 years and return this year after losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Patriots in the AFC Championship contest last season.
The Steelers as favorites is not all that surprising when you consider that the road team won both regular season meetings, with the Steelers coming out on top 27-13 in Cincy in October and the Bengals emerging with a 38-31 win in a December match-up in the Steel City.
Pittsburgh has also had to fight for their playoff life each of the last four weeks while the Bengals have played of late as if they are just happy to be in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years after clinching a berth two weeks ago.
As a result, the Steelers enter the game on a four-game win streak, the last of which they needed (a 35-21 win at Detroit) just to earn the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. The Bengals, on the other hand, had the division title wrapped up two weeks earlier and dropped their last two games, including a home loss against Buffalo and a road blowout at the hands of the Chiefs.
The teams sport identical records of 5-3 at home and 6-2 on the road as well as 8-4 marks in conference play. The Bengals were 9-1 against teams that also played the Steelers, with the lone loss coming at home against the Colts. At 8-2 the Steelers were a game behind in these match-ups and as a result had to settle for the wild card. The losses came against the Colts in Indy and at Baltimore.
This has the potential to be an entertaining game, with each team attempting to do what it does best.
In the case of the Steelers that is run the football early and often, a strategy that placed them third in the conference with 2,223 yards on the ground, and allowed QB Ben Roethlisberger to be effective when needed. If backs Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis can remain effective against a Bengals defense -- ranked in the bottom half of the league against the rush -- it figures to be a long afternoon for the Bengals, who are also ranked among the bottom teams in defending the pass.
The Steelers made the fourth fewest pass attempts in the AFC, but Roethlisberger was good on 60 percent with 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, stats which make him the fourth rated passer in the AFC at 98.6. His favorite target is Hines Ward, who grabbed 69 balls for 975 yards.
The Bengals best hope is a repeat of the December shootout led by MVP candidate Carson Palmer, the No. 2 rated passer in the conference behind Peyton Manning.
At 358 yards per game the Bengal offense is fourth best in the AFC with the passing game ranked first in receptions and third in total yards.
Palmer tallied 3,836 passing yards and connected on 32 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions. His favorite target has been Chad Johnson, who led the conference with 97 catches and 1,432 yards.
The Bengals ground attack was also effective, as Rudi Johnson placed fourth in the AFC with 1,458 yards, a shade below San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson.
As they are aware from their previous meetings, however, Bengal yards will not come as easily as they might be accustomed to as they are facing the top ranked defense in the AFC in terms of yards allowed, yielding 284 a game compared to the nearly 340 yards allowed by Cincinnati.
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