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by Bryan Leonard - 12/03/2005
As we approach the home stretch of the NFL season, division races and playoff pairings are slowly beginning to take shape. This Sunday finds several key games with teams in the thick of the races. Here's a look at some of them.
Bengals at Steelers: This is a showdown for the AFC North title and there are plenty of sidelights. If the Steelers win, they will be tied for the division lead but will essentiall own it because they will have swept the Bengals (8-3) in head-to-head play. Pittsburgh has already won at Cincinnati, 27-13, in a game the Steelers defense dominated. 221 Pittsburgh rush yards, a hefty 4.7 yards per carry, was the storyline, along with Cincy barely topping 300 total yards. Injuries to the Steelers since then have been significant, and a large cause for their current two-game skid.
As usual, Bengals WR Chad Johnson is in the thick of the chatter this week. Johnson is planning to entertain the Steeler fans with his best touchdown celebration yet. Johnson said, "I'm going to guarantee that I won't be stopped this Sunday."
Should the Steelers lose, they would trail the Bengals by two games with four to play, including difficult games against the Bears at home and at the Vikings. â€œObviously, it's the biggest game of the year, and we all know what's at stake," Bill Cowher said. The Pittsburgh offensive line that sent three starters to the Pro Bowl last season isn't healthy. The Steelers rushed for 86 yards in the Monday night loss at Indy and QB Ben Roethlisberger was sacked three times. Left tackle Marvel Smith returned after missing a game with an ankle injury, but was unable to push off properly and was replaced by rookie Trai Essex, who played in his second NFL game. Smith (ankle) is out, which means Essex will start. Another rookie, Chris Kemoeatu, is working at both guard positions.
A key will be Roethlisberger, who said his right thumb injury "is pretty painful," but he is hopeful it won't severely affect his throwing Sunday. In addition, Big Ben tweaked an ankle after returning from a three-week layoff following knee surgery. "It's a little sore, but we're going to try and see if we can get by with it," said Roethlisberger. "A couple of contraptions hopefully will help it." He didn't look healthy Monday night, though he was under a lot of pressure from the Colts. Roethlisberger is 18-2 as an NFL regular season starter, and was 17 of 26 for 133 yards Monday.
RB Willie Parker (12 carries, 43 yards) will start again, but Cowher hasn't decided whether he will again dress both Jerome Bettis (6 carries, 9 yards) and Duce Staley (2 carries, 6 yards) as backups. Parker gained 131 yards on 18 carries in the first meeting against Cincy, but that was with a healthier offensive line. Pittsburgh dictated the style and tempo of that first game against the Bengals, but that hasn't been the case the past couple of weeks.
The Bengals are ranked 25th in the NFL in rush defense, having allowed an average of 122 yards per game. The Bengals have lost four of the five games played against Pittsburgh in the three seasons since Marvin Lewis became head coach. In the four losses, the Bengals have allowed the Steelers to run the ball an average of 39.7 times and gain 168.8 yards on the ground. The one time the Bengals under Lewis beat the Steelers, a 24-20 win at Heinz Field in 2003, Cincinnati held Pittsburgh to 85 yards rushing on 25 carries. In their last two games, the Steelers have gained 70 yards and averaged 2.8 yards per carry in a 16-13 overtime loss to the Ravens and then managed just 86 yards and 3.4 yards per carry in Monday night's 26-7 loss to the Colts. The Steelers have not had a 100-yard rusher since Parker did it against the Bengals in October. The Steelers will be fired up at home to end their skid, but are they healthy enough?
Cowboys at NY Giants: The NFC East lead is at stake. The Giants lost 16-13 at Dallas in the first meeting in overtime. However, Dallas had the edge in yards 385-270. Cowboys QB Drew Bledsoe has looked old since throwing for over 300 yards against the Giants. So have WRs Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson (a combined 64 years of age), who haven't come close to their 14-catch 184-yard effort against the Giants. The Dallas defense has held three teams under 73 rush yards in the last five weeks. Bill Parcells' team has the fewest penalties in the NFL (63), the Giants were flagged 16 times in last week's frustrating loss at Seattle. The NY Giants are 5-1 SU, 4-2 ATS at home averaging 32 ppg (4-2 â€œoverâ€쳌 the total at home). The Giants young secondary is a concern, as second-year corner Curtis Deloatch and rookie Corey Webster have struggled. Also, NY DT William Joseph (elbow) will not play Sunday. Enjoy Showdown Sunday!