Fay: Without playoffs to fight for, it's time for Bengals to put up or shut up vs. Steelers

Posted at 12:40 PM, Dec 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-15 12:45:30-05

CINCINNATI — The Bengals' chances of making the playoffs are remote. Basically, they have to win their last three games, Pittsburgh has to lose its last three and Baltimore has to beat Pittsburgh and lose the rest.

But that won’t make a win over the Steelers Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium any less sweet. A victory would keep the Bengals mathematically alive and be the high mark of an otherwise ugly season.

The Bengals’ recent history against the Steelers — Ben Roethlisberger is 20-7 against Cincinnati; Mike Tomlin is 15-5 — adds to what a victory would mean.

It would also given some validation to the idea that the Bengals aren’t that far from competing, given that the Steelers come in on a four-game winning streak with a chance to eliminate their Ohio River rivals.

“It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight like always,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

The Bengals will take a little less knock-down and drag-out this time around.

Maybe this was a good sign: Vontaze Burfict did not take the bait Wednesday. When reporters approached, he took a call on his cell phone. Interesting timing or smart dodge?

We don’t know.

But Burfict had nothing to gain by spouting off on the Steelers, so that’s a good thing from the Bengal perspective. He is likely to get more bait on Sunday from the Steelers.

Burfict was still serving his suspension the last time the Bengals met the Steelers (24-16 loss in Week 2) so his last action against them came in the Wild Card game last year — the infamous meltdown game. Burfict, of course, earned his suspension in that game with a hit on Antonio Brown. That penalty and another on Adam Jones turned Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal into a 35-yard chip shot.

Jones was willing to talk about the baiting and so forth — all the while downplaying it.

“You want to make it a big test,” Jones said. “I’m not calling it that.”

Still, Jones says the Bengals learned from that game.

“We’re all pros. After the playoff we figured out how to handle our emotions,” Jones said. “I don’t think that will be a problem.”

That is not to say the game isn’t big for the Bengals. At 5-7-1 with the playoffs hopes hanging by thread, it would be easy to play out the string. But playing the Steelers with all the history isn’t a game that the Bengals will have trouble getting up for.

“It’s always different when we play those guys,” Jones said. “It’s a game you mark on your calendar every year. It’s good for the team and the city to win this game. We’re eager.”

Burfict and Jones are the Bengals to watch. Both are emotional players who bring a toughness to the game.

Jones expects the Steelers to try to get Burfict to go off.

“I would,” he said.

But Burfict’s been good lately. He hasn’t had a penalty in the last four games while chalking up at least 13 tackles in three of them.

Bengal coach Marvin Lewis talked about how Burfict, as a guy playing in space, could incur a penalty up to 35 snaps a game. Every time he does or doesn’t comes down to a split-second decision.

“If you play linebacker, you’re at the tip of the sword all the time,” Lewis said.

Lewis talked about a conversation Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks had with Burfict in the offseason.

“He told him: 'Vontaze, you play in a different league than I played in,” Lewis said. “You have to understand the scrutiny.”

That’s the reality of the new NFL. You can’t make helmet-to-helmet contact and get away with it very often. Burfict seems to have learned how to avoid that, despite playing the game with incredible speed and ferociousness.

Tomlin said his guys would be on their best behavior Sunday — no baiting.

“I’m not anticipating it,” the Steelers coach said. “We’re preparing like we always do.”