The Cincinnati Bengals have a chance to keep the rival Pittsburgh Steelers from the playoffs when they meet Sunday at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh (8-6-1) needs a win and a Cleveland Browns win over the Baltimore Ravens to claim the AFC North title and advance to the postseason for a fifth straight year. Both games are at 4:25 p.m.
Cincinnati (6-9) has lost seven straight to the Steelers and are wrapping up a third straight losing season but can play the role of the spoiler just like last year when the Bengals beat the Ravens in the finale to allow the Buffalo Bills in as a wild card instead.
Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:
1. The end of the Lewis era?
It’s been said before and not been true but Sunday’s game could be the last for Marvin Lewis as Cincinnati’s head coach.
The Bengals signed him to a contact in January with an option for 2019, but aren’t publicly committed beyond this season. Mike Brown has remained loyal to Lewis over the past 16 years, though, and the onslaught of injuries the team sustained this season, plus the gradual improvements on defense since Lewis took over for fired coordinator Teryl Austin, could be the head coach’s saving grace.
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A win at Pittsburgh in the finale also could factor in, though Lewis said it doesn’t have any effect from his perspective. He also remained adamant that he wasn’t thinking beyond Sunday’s game this week.
“I don’t think it has any effect — no effect for me,” Lewis said. “Sunday is what we’re pointing to, and that’s the deal.”
2. Ready for anything
The Steelers have been especially pass heavy this season but even more so with James Conner out the past three games with a high ankle sprain. He was a full participant all week in practice but was still listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report.
His return could mean more balance in the Pittsburgh offense so the Bengals will need to be ready for anything, and Antonio Brown’s questionable status just adds to more uncertainty of what to expect. He showed up on the injury report Thursday with a knee injury. Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster each have more than 100 catches this season, and Ben Roethlisberger leads the league with 4,842 yards passing.
“The last couple of ball games, James Connor hasn’t played, so they’ve been a little different, particularly on first and second down,” Lewis said. “I think I said earlier that it’s rare to prepare for a team with two receivers who have had over 100 catches already. That’s rare, so it tells you how prolific they’ve been throwing the football this year.”
3. Thin in the middle
The Bengals’ linebacker corps got a little thinner this week with Jordan Evans going on injured reserve with an ankle injury and Vontaze Burfict out after sustaining his second concussion this season and seventh reported concussion in his career.
That leaves Nick Vigil as the only starter available. The Bengals already had Preston Brown and Malik Jefferson on injured reserve so that leaves Vinny Rey, Brandon Bell, Hardy Nickerson and Chris Worley as the only linebackers.
That bodes well for Smith-Schuster, who is one of the best slot receivers in the league. Opponents have been targeting the Bengals’ linebackers more this season, seeing their point of weakness, and with the cornerbacks stepping up in recent weeks, Pittsburgh also could take advantage. The Bengals also will be without Dre Kirkpatrick, who is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
4. New opportunities
When the Bengals put Tyler Boyd, Kirkpatrick and Evans on injured reserve, they elected to take three offensive players off the practice squad instead of any defensive players, adding halfback Quinton Flowers, wide receiver Hunter Sharp and offensive tackle Kent Perkins.
That would seem to indicate Cincinnati wants to get a look at some new players on offense, as the receiver group has dwindled and no one other than tight end C.J. Uzomah has stepped up as a reliable target for Jeff Driskel. They still haven’t really given Auden Tate or Josh Malone opportunities in game situations, but regardless of who the receivers are Sunday, the Bengals will want to get Joe Mixon the ball as much as possible.
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Driskel also would like to finish on a better note, as he has struggled to put a good game on tape while getting his first NFL starts in place of injured Andy Dalton.
“I just have to go out and make more plays,” Driskel said. “I’ve made some plays, but obviously not enough, especially last week to win the game. I just have to go out make more plays, clean a few things up and get rolling, especially early in games.”
5. Not just another game
The Bengals can’t finish any higher than last place in the AFC North at this point, but the players say they are still playing for pride and many of them for jobs next season.
If that’s not enough motivation, finishing up at Pittsburgh adds enough meaning on its own, and they might not say it, but the Bengals would love to keep the Steelers from the postseason.
“It’s supposed to be just like playing another game, but playing a divisional opponent, playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, of course, we want to beat them,” defensive lineman Jordan Willis said. “We’ve been wanting to beat them for a long time. It does give you a little added motivation because it’s not like just playing another team and this is it. For the last game and how this season has gone, it’s a good way to finish off.”