CINCINNATI -- Regardless of what they might hear or read in the coming days, the Cincinnati Bengals believe Ben Roethlisberger will be at quarterback when they face the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field.
"Teams like to keep their secrets," said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "I feel like he's going to play. That's how we are going to prepare. I know what this game means to us. So I know what it means to them."
The unbeaten Bengals are coming off a bye week looking to improve to 7-0 for the first time in franchise history.
More important, a victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday would put Cincinnati in the driver's seat in the AFC North division which they already lead by two and one-half games.
With immense ramifications for both teams, the assumption is Roethlisberger will be the starter.
Not only do the Bengals believe Roethlisberger will start, they also must assume he'll be the same "Big Ben" who frustrates defenders with his ability to extend plays with his feet.
"We know he's hurt," said Kirkpatrick. "We don't know how much he's going to be able to be on his feet moving around the pocket. We won't know until Sunday."
Cincinnati is out to prove that it's a new era in the AFC North, largely ruled by the Steelers and Ravens in recent years. Additionally, the Bengals are just 6-17 against Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger at quarterback.
"He does a great job moving around in the pocket," Kirkpatrick said. "You have to keep your eyes on your man. Not try to do anyone else's job. You have to be poised."
Cincinnati's 6-0 record perhaps carries a little less weight when you consider that it has played just one divisional game: a win at Baltimore in September.
The Bengals still have two games each against Pittsburgh and Cleveland then host the Ravens in the regular-season finale.
"We know the physicality and toughness in this division," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "This is a division week. There's an extra bit of energy."
REPORT CARD AFTER 6 GAMES
--PASSING OFFENSE: A. Quarterback Andy Dalton elevated himself into the league MVP conversation after passing for 1,761 yards with 14 TDs and two interceptions. He completed 67.4 percent of his passes for a 116.1 rating which this week ranked ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. The return of tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones gives Dalton and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson plenty of options when teams choose to double A.J. Green.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: C. Cincinnati's running game is quietly productive, ranking 11th in the NFL in yards. Giovani Bernard ranks 11th in the league with 71.2 yards per game while Jeremy Hill largely has been a non-factor. Look for that to change down the stretch. For now, the duo is effective in helping set up the passing game and adept at blitz pickup to protect QB Andy Dalton.
--PASS DEFENSE: B. The Bengals rank fifth in the AFC with 17 sacks. The key for Cincinnati's secondary following the bye week is to limit big plays. Opponents are averaging 10 yards per catch against the Bengals who rank 20th in the league in overall pass defense. Veteran corner Adam Jones leads the team with two interceptions and six passes defensed. Young corners Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard are improving.
--RUN DEFENSE: C. Cincinnati ranks 17th in the NFL against the run, allowing 109.2 yards per game. That number took a hit on October 11 when Seattle's Thomas Rawls rushed for 169 yards against them. Opponents averaged 141.6 yards on the ground in three games leading up to the bye.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: A. The Bengals' special teams have been a game-changer. Through six games, Cincinnati averaged its own 34-yard line to start drives, tied for first in the league. Punter Kevin Huber is adept at flipping field position, averaging 43.1 net yards per attempt while placing 12 inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Mike Nugent was 7-for-9 on field goals including game-tying and game-winning kicks in a comeback win against the Seahawks on October 11.
--COACHING: A. It's Marvin Lewis' team, but the job that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has done aiding the evolution of quarterback Andy Dalton and taking advantage of a myriad of weapons on offense has made him a candidate for a head coaching job. Lewis has kept his team focused and on point despite growing hype over the 6-0 start.