John Clay

John Clay: An old nemesis appears in Bengals’ playoff path

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron prepared to throw in the first half game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron prepared to throw in the first half game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Cincinnati. The Associated Press

There’s no escape.

Not here, not now, not next week, not in the biggest game of the season. Here are the Cincinnati Bengals, 12-4 in the regular season, AFC North Division champions, a playoff team for the fifth straight season but looking for their first postseason win since 1990, and here come — gulp — the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“We’ve been there before,” Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said Sunday after his team’s 24-16 win over Baltimore. “Time to right the ship. An exorcism.”

Yeah, but perhaps you weren’t listening. Thanks to Pittsburgh beating Cleveland, and Buffalo beating the New York Jets, and Denver beating San Diego on Sunday, Cincinnati’s wild-card opponent next weekend is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“We beat them at their place and they beat us here,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said of the division rival. “We know they’re a great team.”

Yeah, but not just any team. It’s the Steelers, the franchise with six Super Bowl wins (to Cincinnati’s none), the franchise that knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in 2005, the team that less than a month ago beat the Bengals 33-20 at Paul Brown Stadium.

“We’ll be ready, trust me,” Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said. “We won’t get into the (stuff) we got into last time, but we’ll be ready. We won’t have the penalties we had last time.”

Indeed, the Bengals let their emotions get the better of them Dec. 13. They nearly rumbled with the Steelers during pregame. They made costly mistakes, including a personal foul penalty against linebacker Vontaze Burfict that helped lead to Pittsburgh’s final score.

“That was a terrible game, to be honest with you,” Bengals safety Reggie Nelson said.

We’ll be ready, trust me. We won’t get into the (stuff) we got into last time, but we’ll be ready. We won’t have the penalties we had last time.

Adam Jones on playing Steelers again

That was also the game the Bengals lost quarterback Andy Dalton, who in the middle of a standout season broke his right thumb while trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception on Cincinnati’s first series. Dalton is scheduled to have the thumb re-examined Monday, but it remains a distinct possibility AJ McCarron will make his fourth career start and first playoff start in the wild-card round.

“I just come in and go to work during the week and if I am (the starter), I am,” said McCarron, who completed 17 of 27 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. “I still prepare the same way and get ready.”

Sunday’s victory was something of a workmanlike effort. The offense stalled in the first half while the defense held Baltimore to a trio of field goals. First possession of the second half, Burfict “flipped things around,” Lewis said, with an interception of Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallett at the Baltimore 33. The Bengals cashed in the turnover for a touchdown and took control from there.

“That interception gave us the spark we needed,” Nelson said.

It’s just the third time in franchise history the Bengals have finished the regular season 12-4. They won 12 games in 1981 under Forrest Gregg and lost to San Francisco in the Super Bowl. They won 12 games in 1988 under Sam Wyche and again lost to 49ers in the Super Bowl.

This team has the talent to reach the franchise’s third Super Bowl. The Bengals set a team record for fewest points allowed. Their offense can be explosive and has run the football better of late. Jeremy Hill just missed his first 100-yard rushing game of the season Sunday, gaining 96 yards on 16 carries. To be sure, Dalton’s status is a question, but McCarron has a 97.1 passer rating for the three games he’s started.

First of all, however, the Bengals have to get that first playoff win. They are 0-6 in the postseason under Lewis. They have lost wild-card games each of the last four years, one at home (to San Diego in 2013) and three on the road (at Houston in 2011; at Houston in 2012 and at Indianapolis in 2014).

It would be one thing to finally get a victory in the playoffs. It would be quite another to get that victory against the Steelers.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,” said A.J. Green, the Bengals’ star receiver. “We’ll be ready whoever it is.”

Bengals-Steelers last 10 games

  • Dec. 13, 2015 at Cincinnati — Steelers 33-20
  • Nov. 1, 2015 at Pittsburgh — Bengals 16-10
  • Dec. 28, 2014 at Pittsburgh — Steelers 27-17
  • Dec. 7, 2014 at Cincinnati — Steelers 42-21
  • Dec. 15, 2013 at Pittsburgh — Steelers 30-20
  • Sept. 16, 2013 at Cincinnati — Bengals 20-10
  • Dec. 23, 2012 at Pittsburgh — Bengals 13-10
  • Oct. 21, 2012 at Cincinnati — Steelers 24-17
  • Dec. 4, 2011 at Pittsburgh — Steelers 35-7
  • Nov. 13, 2011 at Cincinnati — Steelers 24-17
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