Sunday’s tilt against Pittsburgh is essentially a must-win for the Bengals if they want to make the playoffs. We’ve been over that.
This game, however, also has the potential to mean so much more to Cincinnati than just keeping playoff hopes alive. It feels like the AFC North is really up for grabs for the first time since it was created in 2002. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have dominated the division since then, and without question are two of the best-run franchises in the NFL.
But a sea change is coming in the AFC North, and the Bengals have a great opportunity to take over as the perennial favorite. The main reason the Bengals are in a position to do so comes from astute their drafting the past few years. (As an aside, how is it even possible a Mike Brown-managed team has had several successful drafts in a row? Is there a secret man behind the curtain?).
More than that, however, is the creeping age, and the injuries that come with it, of Cincinnati’s main divisional rivals. The possible career-ending injury for Ray Lewis last week was a convenient narrative for “end of an era” chatter, but the truth is the Baltimore defense slipped a little last year, and had already slipped a lot this year even before Lewis got hurt. Terrell Suggs hasn’t been able to get on the field, and Ed Reed is not his old dominant self.
Meanwhile, the Bengals will get a firsthand look Sunday at a Pittsburgh team without Troy Polamalu, and other aging stars such as Ike Taylor, James Harrison and Ryan Clark, who are all on the wrong side of 30. The offensive line seems to be held together by chewing gum and silly string, which has allowed opponents to completely stop the Steelers running game. Of course, it doesn’t help when you are down to your third string back either.
The AFC North is at a crossroads. With a win, the Bengals could move back within a game of first place, and really put the Steelers at dire straits at 2-4. Sunday’s game is a great opportunity for Cincinnati to serve notice that the Bengals are the team of the future in the division.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh are standing over the cliff, looking into the abyss. It’s up to the Bengals to push them in.