So maybe the AFC North race isn’t quite over yet after all?
That’s up for debate considering the 8-2 Cincinnati Bengals hold a two-game lead with six games remaining in the regular season, but after losing to the Arizona Cardinals for their second consecutive defeat Sunday night, what was once considered an insurmountable divisional lead over the 6-4 Pittsburgh Steelers might not be so insurmountable after all.
When the teams met at Heinz Field earlier this month, many considered the matchup of the 6-0 Bengals and 4-3 Steelers to be a do-or-die scenario in terms of the division race. So when the Bengals pulled off a hard fought 16-10 win courtesy of a late touchdown pass from Andy Dalton and two uncharacteristic fourth-quarter interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger, few believed the Steelers would have any chance of making up a 3.5-game deficit at the halfway point of the season.
Seemed perfectly fair. After all, the Bengals were firing on all cylinders on their way to an 8-0 start while the Steelers were suffering through a barrage of injuries while languishing in the logjam of contenders and pretenders in the AFC Wild Card race.
Three weeks later, the narrative has changed in no small part to the Steelers stacking back-to-back home wins with a chance to win three straight for the first time this season when they travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks.
With pressure mounting and many wondering if the Bengals will fold in a big spot like so many times before, the question now becomes can the Steelers do what few even thought was a remote possibilty and catch the Bengals for the AFC North crown?
It’s still a long shot, but let’s take a look at the final six games and how it could happen.
Although what looked like a nightmare final stretch for the Steelers after Thanksgiving looks a bit easier now, it’s by no means a cakewalk. It starts this Sunday against the Seahawks, who despite being 5-5, still have many of the players who helped them win two consecutive NFC Championships and are in must win mode as they desperately attempt to fight their way back into playoff contention.
A loss would be devestating to the Seahawks playoff aspirations and few teams are tougher to beat at home. The case could easily be made that this might be the biggest challenge remaining on the schedule for the Steelers. Meanwhile, the Bengals face the St. Louis Rams at home and the Rams are a mess. In terms of winning the division, the Steelers must find a way to get a win in Seattle.
The Steelers then host the Indianapolis Colts who will be without Andrew Luck and will have to turn to veteran Matt Hasselbeck in prime time while the Bengals travel to Cleveland. Tough to make up ground here as both teams should get wins.
If both teams hold serve the next two games, the Steelers travel to Cincinnati in a game that could decide the division once and for all. If the Bengals win, they will seal up the divison based on head to head and divisional records, if the Steelers win, it’s down to one with three to go.
Both teams will face Denver and Baltimore over the last three games. Clearly the loss of key players and specifically Joe Flacco has the Ravens reeling, while Denver is now being led by Brock Osweiler instead of Peyton Manning, not exactly what anyone would have predicted at the start of the season.
The huge difference is the Bengals must travel to Denver, never easy, while the Steelers welcome Osweiler and company to Heinz just before Christmas. This could be the swing game considering Denver will likely be fighting for the second seed and will need to play it’s starters in both late season contests.
The Steelers remaining game is a road trip to Cleveland while the Bengals must travel across the country to San Francisco for games that on paper, should be wins.
By no means is it impossible for the Steelers to catch the Bengals down the stretch, but you’d have to give the Bengals the edge based on the obvious fact they still hold a two game lead with six games left, but also a slightly easier schedule despite of long trips to Denver and San Francisco.
For the Steelers, they must win this weekend and Seattle and get a home win against the Colts to set up a pivotal contest at Cincinatti that would make it a one game deficit would three games to go.
If that scenario plays out, things could get very interesting down the stretch.
And who would have guessed that a month ago?