CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals have a chance to move into contention in the AFC North, but it’s a long road back.
And it starts in Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati (2-3) plays four road games in the next five weeks, a stretch that will either set them up for a run at the playoffs or leave them so far behind that they’d need a Steelers collapse to give them a chance.
“This game means a lot,” safety George Iloka said. “Let’s not take that out of there — it means a lot.”
A loss Sunday at Pittsburgh (4-2) would leave them 2½ games behind the Steelers for the division lead, a daunting margin to overcome.
Coach Marvin Lewis broke with his just-one-game approach and acknowledged that it could be a pivotal week in the Bengals’ season.
If two teams tie for best record in a division, the top tiebreakers are head-to-head results and best record in division games.
Pittsburgh is 2-0 in division games, including wins at Cleveland and Baltimore. The Bengals are 1-1, including a home loss to the Ravens in their season opener.
A win by the Steelers on Sunday would not only solidify their hold on first place, but add to their advantage in the tiebreakers, too.
“For us, it’s a big football game being on the road and in the division,” Lewis said. “It’s one that can get us back to .500 on the season, so it’s really important.”
The Bengals went 5-3 on the road in 2014 and 6-2 in 2015. They slipped to 2-6 on the road last season, including a win in Cleveland. This season, they’re 1-1 on the road, including a win in Cleveland. They lost at Green Bay in overtime.
Games in Pittsburgh have added significance, given the hard-edged history to the rivalry. The Steelers have won 12 of the past 15 in the series, with two of Cincinnati’s wins during that stretch coming at Heinz Field — 13-10 in 2012 and 16-10 in 2015.
“When you see Pittsburgh, we have a history,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “A lot of things went bad before on the field.”
The Bengals have been playing catch-up since their 0-3 start. They’ve never reached the playoffs after opening a season at 0-3.
No NFL team has done it since the 1998 Buffalo Bills. Their chances depend upon how they do in the next five weeks: at Pittsburgh, home against Indianapolis (2-4), at Jacksonville (3-3), at Tennessee (3-3) and at Denver (3-2).
The previous time the Bengals had a stretch of four road games in five weeks was 2014. They won all the road games — at New Orleans, Houston, Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Their home game was against the Steelers. Pittsburgh won that one, 42-21.
Pacman sidelined: Cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was held out of practice Thursday because of a bad back, injured in the Bengals’ most recent game against Buffalo. Jones had practiced on a limited basis Wednesday because of the injury, which leaves his availability for the game at Pittsburgh in question.
Receivers limited: Receiver Tyler Boyd missed practice again as he recovers from a knee injury. Rookie receiver John Ross was limited because of a knee injury, an indication he won’t be available for Pittsburgh.
Good to go: Quarterback Andy Dalton (ankle) and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (shoulder) fully practiced for the second straight day.