The Pittsburgh Steelers still have a chance to make the playoffs, but they need to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Pittsburgh on Sunday and also get help elsewhere to do it.
If the Steelers (8-6-1) do get past the Bengals (6-9), they could reach the postseason if one of two things happen — either the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens or the Indianapolis Colts tie with the Tennessee Titans.
A Browns’ victory is the more likely of the scenarios, but it won’t mean anything if the Steelers lose to Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh won the first meeting between the teams on Oct. 14, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 10 seconds left to give the Steelers a 28-21 victory.
It was the Steelers’ seventh straight victory over the Bengals.
But the Steelers have lost four of their past five games, and all four losses were by seven points or fewer. That includes the 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints last week.
“We didn’t make enough plays to win,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “And really it was in some areas that have been common areas for us. We acknowledge that. Part of us getting ready this week is acknowledging that. We have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. We talked about how New Orleans hunts the ball. We turned the ball over twice in the waning moments of that game in scoring territory. It was significant.”
Running back Stevan Ridley fumbled when the Steelers held a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter, and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled when the Steelers were driving with a chance to tie or go ahead.
Pittsburgh minus-10 in turnover differential this season.
The Steelers players and coaches will try not to be distracted by what happens in the Browns-Ravens game, which will be played at the same time.
“We just focus on the things that are in our control,” Tomlin said. “From that perspective, it’s no different than any other week. We better handle business in our stadium. There are things going on in other stadiums that can affect us. But there are things going on in other stadiums every weekend that could affect our positioning.”
Former Browns cornerback Joe Haden, who is in his second season with the Steelers, spoke to a few of his former teammates.
“I’ve talked to a couple of them, giving them some motivation,” Haden said. “I know they want to end on a good note.”
Roethlisberger has had an uneven season. He leads the league in passing yards per game (322.8) and has thrown 33 touchdown passes, which is tied for fourth in the NFL and is a single-season franchise record. But he has also thrown 15 interceptions, which is tied for the most in the NFL.
He threw three touchdown passes with no interceptions against New Orleans, and the Steelers still lost.
A bigger concern is the health of running back James Conner, who has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and is questionable for Sunday’s game against the Bengals. He is averaging 75.8 yards per games, which is eighth in the NFL.
If Conner plays, he could have a major impact. He rushed for 111 yards in the first game against the Bengals, who rank 29th in the league in rushing defense.
Jeff Driskel will again be the Bengals’ quarterback. He had pretty good numbers in last week’s loss to Cleveland, completing 13 of 19 passes with two touchdown passes and no interceptions. But he amassed only 133 passing yards.
Playing the Steelers is enough incentive for him.
“I don’t think it has much to do with the spoiler role,” Driskel said. “Any time we play the Steelers or any division opponent, it’s a big game for us, and we understand that. We also understand that it’s our last opportunity this year, so we want to go out on a high note.”
The Bengals’ defense will be charged with slowing down the Steelers’ running game while still being aware of Pittsburgh’s passing threats.
“As we look forward to our game against Pittsburgh, it’s rare to get ready to play a team that’s had two receivers (Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster) catch 100 passes in a year,” head coach Marvin Lewis said. “These guys have had great seasons. In the last couple of games, they’ve been throwing the ball quite a bit.”
Running back Joe Mixon has been one of the Bengals’ most productive players. He ran for more than 100 yards in consecutive games before gaining 68 yards on 17 carries against the Browns.
The Bengals will finish with a third straight losing season, and they will end up last in the division for the first time since 2010.