The Cincinnati Bengals are on the cusp of something that hasn't happened in the team's 46-year history. They've been to the playoffs before, sure, but it's never become a trend.
The Bengals have a chance to earn a postseason berth for a third consecutive season - with a little help - when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
A win over the Steelers and a loss or tie by either Baltimore or Miami will put Cincinnati in the playoffs in three straight years for the first time. If it's the Ravens who lose or tie while the Bengals win, the AFC North title is theirs.
"We're on a roll," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "At the beginning of the year, we had three goals. We wanted to be undefeated at home, win the AFC North and eventually be world champions."
Before they can look ahead, though, the Bengals need to take care of business under the lights in Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati (9-4) has won three straight, two with an offensive outburst and one behind a stellar effort on the defensive side. The Bengals beat Cleveland and Indianapolis by a combined 83-48 score. In between, they shut the Chargers down in a 17-10 win at San Diego.
Andy Dalton is currently enjoying the highest passer rating of his career, a still-modest 87.7, while the running-back tandem of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard has been causing fits for the opposition. They've combined for 1,282 yards on the ground and 10 touchdowns, while Bernard also has three receiving scores.
The Bengals' 160 passing first downs and their 86 rushing both rank in the top-half of the NFL, while the team's 25.7 points per game is tied for ninth.
Cincinnati has also thrived behind one of the NFL's top pass rushes. Though no player has more than seven sacks, 12 have recorded at least one and three have six or more quarterback takedowns.
That should be a concern for the Steelers (5-8), who have had trouble this season protecting Ben Roethlisberger.
Due to various injuries on the offensive line, Pittsburgh's blocking has been substandard, with Roethlisberger absorbing 39 sacks - tied for third most in the NFL. The Bengals took the two-time Super Bowl winner down twice in a 20-10 home win Sept. 16.
Bernard scored twice for Cincinnati in that one, while Roethlisberger went 20 of 37 with a touchdown and an interception to post his second-worst rating (73.1) of 2013.
"We didn't win the first game against these guys," said Pittsburgh receiver Jerricho Cotchery. "We are going to be up for the challenge. Guys are going to be ready to play."
The Steelers are coming off a pair of losses in which the most memorable moments involved crossing the sideline.
They fell to the Ravens 22-20 on Thanksgiving in a game best remembered for coach Mike Tomlin overstepping the sideline, entering the field of play and interfering with Baltimore kick returner Jacoby Jones - a gaffe which cost Tomlin a $100,000 fine.
Last Sunday, wide receiver Antonio Brown also overstepped the sideline, but he left the field of play when he narrowly stepped out of bounds on a last-second reception that would have won the game. Instead, the Steelers lost to the Dolphins 34-28.
The frustrating losses, and the unlikely chances of them making the playoffs, haven't distracted the Steelers as they prepare for a chance to play spoiler.
According to Tomlin, the team is "putting together a plan that is geared toward defeating the Cincinnati Bengals."
Roethlisberger has played well of late despite the team's struggles. In the last four games, the quarterback has completed 63.0 percent of his passes, throwing 11 touchdowns and, more importantly, no interceptions. He has a 14-6 career record against the Bengals.
"We know what's at stake," said Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell. "Guys just have to be ready. We have to be ready for it."
History doesn't matter much to the Bengals, who hold a two-game lead over Baltimore in the division and have a lot left to play for in the coming weeks. Beyond their third straight playoff berth and a division crown, a first-round bye is also within reach.
"We've just got to take care of our business and we'll be all right," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones told the team's official web site. "If we just win out we'll be OK. That's all we've got to do: win out and let everything else take care of itself."
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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