The Pittsburgh Steelers are usually the team that sits atop the AFC North while others try to chase them down, but through five games this season, the Cincinnati Bengals are the team that’s sitting pretty in first place.
When the Bengals (4-1) play host to the Steelers (2-2-1) on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, they could take early command of the division. But if the Steelers win, they’ll be just a half game out of first place and right back in the thick of the race.
“I think both teams realize this division is a lot tighter than it has been in years,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “The teams that execute and don’t hurt themselves will be the No. 1 seed.”
The Bengals are winning in different ways — capitalizing on turnovers, piling up offense, pulling off late dramatics and grinding.
“Last week, it was the offense,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “This week, it was the defense.”
The Bengals roared back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter last Sunday for a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
The rally began with running back Joe Mixon‘s 18-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Then the defense stepped up in a big way.
First it was defensive end Michael Johnson, who alertly got his hands on a ball that went off a helmet and raced into the end zone for a 22-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Then came a 19-yard fumble return for a score by rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard off a Carlos Dunlap strip-sack to ice it with 2:37 remaining.
“It’s really a credit to Carlos Dunlap,” Hubbard said. “He was chasing the quarterback down and hit the ball right into my lap. All I had to do was run straight.”
Meanwhile, the offense is producing. The Bengals are fourth in the NFL in scoring (30.6 points per game) and A.J. Green has 26 receptions for 409 yards and five touchdowns.
A Cincinnati win could change the narrative of who is in charge in the AFC North.
“Nobody gave us a chance when the season started,” Green said. “Why do they believe in us now? We’re going to continue to keep playing and keep playing for each other.”
Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick took it a step further.
“We’re the team to beat right now. Not them,” Kirkpatrick said.
But the Bengals also must face the fact that they’re 1-7 at home against the Steelers in the Dalton-Green era, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a 14-2 record in Cincinnati, and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 5-18 against Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers offense established the run early last week in a win over the Atlanta Falcons despite the continued absence of unsigned running back Le’Veon Bell. They will look to do the same against a Bengals defense that has struggled to stop the run.
The Dolphins averaged 5.8 yards per carry last week and the Bengals rank 23rd in the league against the run.
The Steelers’ ability to get second-year back James Conner going against the Falcons paid big dividends in the passing game in the second half. Roethlisberger threw two of his three touchdown passes after halftime, including a 47-yard strike to Antonio Brown.
“I think we just got to see what we’re capable of doing,” Roethlisberger said. “I think guys did their job. We talk about trying not to do too much, doing more than your job. I tell the guys before the game: If we, collectively, if we all do our jobs, we’re pretty darn good.”