As the Bengals flew into Pittsburgh Saturday for Sunday's game in sub-freezing temperatures (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), the downtown prepped for a Christmas tree lighting. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow hoped to carry the festivities into Acrisure Stadium and light up the Steelers defense that victimized him for five turnovers in the Opening Day loss at Paycor Stadium.
In a holiday season of unanimity, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable agrees that the opener was an anomaly. Since then, the Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac and WDVE sports director Mike Prisuta, the Pittsburgh contingent that has covered the Steelers since the '80s and Mark Malone, has watched these Steelers struggle to score in the transition to rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and sees more of the same Sunday.
The Cincinnati Enquirer's Kelsey Conway sees the Bengals defense cashing opportunities against Pickett. ESPN.com's Ben Baby, who covers the Bengals for the web site, writes off the opener to Burrow recovering from his appendectomy.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies and visitors first.
It plays out differently than the opener because I feel like that was a preseason game, especially with Burrow coming back from the injury. I think it will be a lot different. DJ Reader coming back for the Bengals is huge. It's an overall boost for the defensive line. The morale. Kind of getting their swagger back. I wouldn't be shocked if the Bengals bait Kenny Pickett into a couple of poor decisions and we haven't really seen a game yet this season where the Bengals get multiple turnovers. I feel like when they came back for the second half after the bye last year, that's when they really started to generate turnovers and hit their stride as a defense.
THE EDGE: A long way from the opener. And they should be able to put some pressure on Pickett. BENGALS, 27-14
The Steelers haven't won back-to-back games all year and the Bengals have won five out of seven averaging 30 in their last four. If you discount that overtime in the opener, the Steelers haven't scored 20 points all year in regulation. The Steelers defense has been OK and they're playing better as a team overall. The two things they're doing better is running the ball and stopping the run. But their best game was the opener, where there were a lot of excuses for the Bengals. Joe Burrow, the line, nobody playing in the preseason and they looked it. Since then, what's Burrow touchdowns to interceptions? 16 to 2? I know he doesn't have Ja'Marr Chase, but ...
THE EDGE: I don't think the Steelers are going to magically come up with points. Key to victory for the Bengals? Correct the extra-point blocking. BENGALS, 26-19
One of the factors in the opener was the Bengals hadn't played their offensive line in the preseason. I think that tilted it a little bit in the Steelers' advantage and I think they're starting to come around now. I also don't think Burrow is going to turn it over the way he did then. I don't think Tee Higgins is going to suffer a concussion and I don't think the Bengals are going to miss an extra point that would have won the game. With the Bengals getting nose tackle DJ Reader back, the Steelers will have a tough time running the ball. They ran it better than they have in several years last week against New Orleans, but this offense just doesn't score points and that's a tough way to win.
It helps the Steelers that Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase won't play and T.J. Watt returned last week. It's going to be a typical AFC North grind-it-out-slug-it-out kind of game, but I still believe in the Bengals as a contender and I think the Steelers are still in development.
THE EDGE: A little too much Joe Mixon and a little too much Joe Burrow. BENGALS, 23-13
What is going to dictate this game is how good Pittsburgh's defensive front plays. Can they force Burrow to be quick with the ball? If their front can't alter Cincinnati's structure and scheme given what the Steelers have in the secondary, the matchup is big for Cincinnati. The X-Factor is if the front of Watt, Alex Highsmith and Cam Heyward take over. As much as Burrow downplayed his appendectomy, how he threw in that first game is not indicative of how he's thrown over the course of his career. I think this is a game where they continue to play like they have against the NFC South. Honestly, the Bengals should win. pretty handily against a bad Pittsburgh team.
THE EDGE: The Bengals weather the Steelers defensive line early, get in front and then run away. BENGALS, 34-14.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The 5-4 Bengals have won five of their last seven and are coming off their most complete game of the season complete with a bye. The Steelers are 3-6 and are in the throes of transition with rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. While Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is top five in most major categories, Pickett is the lowest-rated passer in the league for an offense that doesn't have a touchdown play longer than eight yards.
But a trip to Pittsburgh is never comfortable. In three of their losses, the Bengals struggled against top pass rushers in Dallas and Cleveland and not to mention Pittsburgh at Paycor and here comes that Steelers tandem of Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, on pace for a 17-sack season. They combined for four of the seven sacks of Burrow and if there's ever been a road game the Bengals have to get ahead, this is it. The Steelers are coming off their highest back-to-back rushing totals in eight years and their first 200-yard rush game in six years. In four of the Bengals' five wins they famously scored touchdowns on their first drives and never trailed in three of them.
Still, there are numbers suggesting why the Bengals are favored to carry the day.
The last dozen times they went into the red zone in the last four games trying to score, they came up with touchdowns (eight rushing, four passing) and are fourth in red-zone touchdown percentage while the Steelers defense is sixth. But Pittsburgh has a tough time scoring. They're 28th in the red zone, 31st everywhere and have yet to score 20 points in regulation while the Bengals are averaging 30 in the last three games.
Keep an eye on Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton and not just because he's playing against his old team with a soft splint on his mangled finger. A terrific blitzer, Hilton and the versatile Bengals defense figure to challenge Pickett with a bunch of looks. According to Next Gen Stats, the Bengals pass defense is second best playing with pressure, allowing a 48.1 passer rating while Pickett hasn't been good under pressure with no touchdowns and a pick for a 63.5 rating.
The kicking game decided the last Bengals-Steelers game and it always seems to when Pittsburgh wins. When Chris Boswell ended overtime with a 53-yard field goal (after Evan McPherson's chip-shot miss with an emergency long snapper), it marked Boswell's third walk-off field goal against Cincinnati. Boswell is 36 of 38 against the Bengals and has never missed a PAT against them and won't play Sunday because he's on injured reserve.
Drue Chrisman is tracking to make his NFL debut as the Bengals punter on grass that isn't at its best in late November. McPherson has made his lone kick in Pittsburgh, a 43-yarder, and this is his ninth game with rookie snapper Cal Adomitis, a University of Pittsburgh product coming off the last four years snapping on this surface.