These AFC North powers split the regular-season meetings, but the single most important event that happened in either game came after Dalton fired a first-quarter interception on Dec. 13. He broke his thumb attempting to make the tackle, ending a breakthrough season – at least for now.
A.J. McCarron, who came on and threw for a pair of touchdowns and two costly interceptions, will get the call to try and end a playoff drought that dates back to 1990. Head coach Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in Wild Card games, including losses in four consecutive years. After missing all of his rookies season due to a shoulder injury, McCarron, who has thrown 115 passes over the past month as the starter, hasn’t been picked off since the Steelers game. The Bengals are hoping he can keep the offense productive without being careless with the football and are counting on his big game experience as a National Championship-winning quarterback at Alabama to help him settle in.
“I played in some big games in college,” McCarron said earlier this week. “There is a lot of media getting down there before national championship games. There were distractions in Miami and New Orleans. I feel like this is comfortable. I get to go home to my house every day and see my wife and little dog. I get to sit on my couch and watch film. It’s definitely fun.”
McCarron has sufficient weapons around him to make him look very good, starting with top target A.J. Green, who has caught touchdown passes from the backup QB in three of the last four games. Combined with Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate, Green ensures the Bengals will have a formidable receiving corps to lean on. Tight end Tyler Eifert returned from a concussion-related absence to catch his 13th touchdown pass of the season, the most anyone at his position produced in 2015.
Ben Roethlisberger participated in both games against the Bengals this season and threw just one touchdown and four interceptions. Despite the poor numbers, the Steelers are encouraged that they were able to score 33 points in Cincinnati less than a month ago. Since Roethlisberger missed most of the first-half of the season due to a knee injury, Pittsburgh’s numbers are weighed down due to the ineffective play of backups Mike Vick and Landry Jones. Over the past eight games, all started by Big Ben, the Steelers have averaged 31.8 points per game.
The offense has overcome the loss of LeVeon Bell, barely missing a beat due to the emergence of DeAngelo Williams, who scored 11 touchdowns this season. Unfortunately, a badly sprained ankle will keep him out of this Wild Card game, forcing the untested Fitzgerald Toussaint, Jordan Todman and fullback Will Johnson into extensive action. Although it might mean Roethlisberger will drop back to pass more than he ordinarily would, the veteran quarterback was confident the Steelers will overcome this setback too.
“I think we’ve got guys that have stepped up all year. I don’t think this will be any different. Whoever it is at running back, the good thing is they’ve been here all year. They’ve been in the system, they know what they’re supposed to do. We expect them to step up and not miss a beat.”
Toussaint has gotten just 18 carries on the season, amassing 42 yards rushing (2.3 ypc), and hasn’t started a game since his final season at Michigan back in 2013. It will be his job to keep the Steelers offense from becoming one-dimensional.
Antonio Brown, who came up with an NFL-best 136 receptions, tying Atlanta’s Julio Jones, will be the primary catalyst for the Pittsburgh offense. Expect Roethlisberger to force-feed him if necessary, because the attention he’ll receive will make life easier for the rest of the offense. Brown caught 13 passes on 21 targets in the two games against the Bengals this season, but failed to register a 100-yard game.
These teams are obviously quite familiar with one another, especially given the continuity among the coaching staffs. Lewis has been Cincinnati’s head man since 2003, while Mike Tomlin has been at the helm in Pittsburgh since 2007. This will be the first time the head coaches meet in the playoffs. Tomlin has won 15 of 22 regular-season meetings.
Besides Dalton and Williams being out, both teams are relatively healthy. The total is available anywhere from 45-to-46 depending on the shop. Temperatures in Cincinnati are expected to be in the high-40s, but rain could be part of the equation.