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Pittsburgh Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals: Keys to Wildcard game and who will win

By Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange   |   Updated Jan. 8, 2016 at 11:23 AM
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Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4): AFC Wildcard game preview

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Pittsburgh - TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phill Simms, Tracy Wolfson

*Keys to the game: There is a great amount of familiarity between the AFC North rivals - and nearly just as much contempt between the two. The teams split two hotly contested games this season, the Bengals winning 16-10 in Pittsburgh in November and the Steelers returning the favor in this stadium, 33-20, six weeks later.

The status of RB DeAngelo Williams (foot) will dictate part of Pittsburgh's game plan. They have expressed confidence in Fitzgerald Toussaint publicly, but the reality is the second-year player out of Michigan averaged just 2.3 yards on 18 carries during the regular season and did not have a single catch. Williams brings experience and versatility that are key to the offense running smoothly and providing QB Ben Roethlisberger with an outlet when his downfield receivers are covered up.

Roethlisberger has thrown multiple interceptions in three consecutive games, and with a directive to protect the ball better will likely look often to trusty TE Heath Miller, who had 10 catches in each of the regular-season meetings.

Bengals QB Andy Dalton suffered a fractured thumb in the rematch, hasn't played since and will again watch AJ McCarron take his place Saturday night. Cincinnati ideally keeps the game close and pecks away with RBs Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in more of a ball-controlled attack. But the reality is the game will hinge on McCarron's arm - and his decision making. Pittsburgh had the league's 30th-ranked pass defense during the regular season and the Bengals must take advantage. McCarron wasn't sacked in the last meeting, but did throw a pair of picks and will be tested in reading the various blitz packages Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will bring.

*Matchup to watch - Steelers WRs Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant vs. Bengals CBs Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick: Brown was held to six catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting and 7-87-0 in the second. That marked two of only four regular-season games that Roethlisberger started that Brown failed to top 100 yards. Meanwhile, Bryant was called out by Big Ben this week to toughen up after he faded down the stretch. The Bengals can't match the speed of the Steelers' receivers, but they do have a veteran unit led by Hall and Kirkpatrick, who twice left last week's game with a twisted ankle. Veterans Terence Newman and Adam Jones also figure into the mix.

*Player spotlight - Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict: Burfict was assessed with nearly half of the $150,000 in fines levied out by the NFL for illegal hits following last month's meeting. Roethlisberger believes Burfict took a cheap shot as his knee, and the Steelers also took offense to Burfict's reaction to RB Le'Veon Bell writhing on the ground with a season-ending knee injury in the first meeting. The officials will be watching carefully and the Bengals need Burfict to remain in control as a key cog in their seventh-ranked run defense.

*Fast facts: The Steelers finished the regular season with 48 sacks, their most since 2010 and 15 more than last season. ... The Bengals have lost seven consecutive playoff games since their last postseason victory in 1991 at the old Riverfront Stadium.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Steelers took the back door into the playoffs and find themselves in a comfortable road setting against a rival they know intimately - and a rival leaning on a backup QB. If Ben Roethlisberger can avoid the turnovers that have plagued his play of late, Big Ben hands Cincinnati yet another playoff dagger to the heart.

*Our pick: Steelers 30-23.

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