Steel­ers hope for a vic­tory (and some luck) vs. Ben­gals

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Sports - BY WILL GRAVES

Steel­ers wide re­ceiver An­to­nio Brown is mod­i­fy­ing his jer­sey, us­ing a marker to add an “s” to the end of his last name.

Safety Sean Davis is mulling a present or two to Cleve­land quar­ter­back Baker May­field, promis­ing to send the rookie “a lit­tle some­thing some­thing” if the Browns can beat the Bal­ti­more Ravens on Sun­day and open the door for the Steel­ers to win a third straight AFC North ti­tle.

“Pray for Cleve­land,” Davis said with a smile. “Pray for the Browns.”

First things first, how­ever. The only way the out­come in Bal­ti­more mat­ters to the Steel­ers is if Pitts­burgh (8-6-1) man­ages to get by reel­ing Cincin­nati (6-9).

The two games be­tween the

four divi­sion ri­vals will un­fold si­mul­ta­ne­ously, but the vet­eran Steel­ers are cau­tion­ing it’s un­wise to get caught watch­ing the score­board and ig­nor­ing the play right in front of you.

“It’s out of our con­trol,” Pitts­burgh guard David DeCas­tro. “You’re go­ing to feel a lot worse than you do now if you were to go out there and see Bal­ti­more lose and us lose too. It’s def­i­nitely de­flat­ing (to be in this po­si­tion). It’s been a long sea­son. We’ve put forth a lot of ef­fort.”

Just not enough to stem a late swoon that’s left the Steel­ers’ post­sea­son chances pre­car­i­ous at best. Pitts­burgh has dropped four of five since its 7-2-1 start, all four losses com­ing dur­ing games the Steel­ers led in the sec­ond half, the lat­est a 31-28 de­feat on the road in New Or­leans last Sun­day that dropped Pitts­burgh to sec­ond place be­hind the Ravens.

The game fol­lowed a trou­bling pat­tern for the Steel­ers. Pitts­burgh moved the ball only to make crit­i­cal mis­takes at crit­i­cal times. The Steel­ers’ fi­nal three pos­ses­sions against the Saints ended with two fum­bles and a fake punt that ended up a half-yard short of a first down.

Throw in a pair of ques­tion­able pass in­ter­fer­ence calls against cor­ner­back Joe Haden – both of which set up New Or­leans touch­downs – and the Steel­ers find them­selves in dan­ger of miss­ing the post­sea­son for the first time since 2013.

“We’re all aware of the sit­u­a­tion,” cen­ter Mau­r­kice Pouncey said. “We know what we’ve got to do and hope­fully it works out.”

Any shot at the Ben­gals re­turn­ing to the play­offs ended weeks ago, their sea­son un­done by in­juries – namely to quar­ter­back Andy Dal­ton and wide re­ceiver A.J. Green – and a de­fense that ranks as the worst in fran­chise his­tory. The main ques­tion head­ing into the fi­nale is whether this is head coach Marvin Lewis’ fi­nal game.

The Ben­gals haven’t reached the post­sea­son since 2015, though Lewis said he doesn’t be­lieve the out­come on Sun­day will have any ef­fect on his fu­ture.

Play­ers are wait­ing to see how it shakes out.

“Peo­ple ask me, ‘Is Marvin go­ing to be back?’ – just peo­ple out there in the world,” de­fen­sive end Jor­dan Wil­lis said. “And I’m like, ‘I have no idea.’ My dad had to tell me the (de­fen­sive) co­or­di­na­tor was fired, and he’s in Kansas City. He called and told me that Teryl Austin was fired. So that just goes to show how much we know and don’t know as play­ers.”

The long and wind­ing road: The Ben­gals wrap up one of their most dis­ap­point­ing sea­sons un­der Lewis. They started 4-1 and could have taken con­trol of the divi­sion by hold­ing on to beat Pitts­burgh on Oct. 14, but Brown turned a short pass into a 31-yard touch­down with 10 sec­onds left for a 28-21 win that started the plum­met – eight losses in the past 10 games. Af­ter surg­ing ahead of the AFC North to start the sea­son, they’re fin­ish­ing at the bot­tom of the divi­sion for only the sec­ond time un­der Lewis.

“It’s been a roller-coaster sea­son, for sure,” cor­ner­back Dar­queze Den­nard said. “We def­i­nitely thought it would be a dif­fer­ent sea­son.”

An­other up­set? The Ben­gals knocked the ri­val Ravens out of the play­offs with a 31-27 win in Bal­ti­more last year, open­ing a spot for Buf­falo to make the post­sea­son. Now they’re in po­si­tion to end Pitts­burgh’s sea­son, but there’s a big dif­fer­ence from last year’s fi­nale. Cincin­nati has 15 play­ers on in­jured re­serve. Backup quar­ter­back Jeff Driskel com­pleted only 2 of 6 passes for 3 yards in the first half of a 26-18 loss at Cleve­land last Sun­day, an in­di­ca­tion of how far they’ve fallen.

They’re more fo­cused on sim­ply play­ing well against the Steel­ers, who have won seven straight and 10 of 11 in the se­ries.

“I don’t think it has much to do with the spoiler role,” Driskel said. Num­bers game: Ben Roeth­lis­berger, 36, can be­come the first quar­ter­back in Steel­ers his­tory to lead the NFL in pass­ing yards if he main­tains his lead over Kansas City’s Pa­trick Ma­homes.

Roeth­lis­berger, who shared the pass­ing ti­tle with New Or­leans’ Drew Brees in 2014, has 4,842 yards through 15 games, 26 yards ahead of Ma­homes.

Roeth­lis­berger’s 33 touch­down passes this sea­son are a fran­chise record, as are his 421 com­ple­tions. He has flirted with the idea of re­tire­ment in the past but plans to re­turn in 2019.

DeCas­tro be­lieves Roeth­lis­berger is throw­ing the ball as good as ever, adding the quar­ter­back’s pro­lific out­put is also part of a col­lab­o­ra­tive process.

“(The re­ceivers) make him bet­ter by get­ting open and we make him bet­ter by block­ing for him,” DeCas­tro said. “It all works to­gether. We pride our­selves in hav­ing a good of­fense and car­ing about team foot­ball.”

D. ROSS CAMERON AP

A third straight AFC North ti­tle— and a play­off berth— for wide re­ceiver An­to­nio Brown, left, and the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers on Sun­day first de­pends on a vic­tory against the Ben­gals. Then they have to cheer on an­other divi­sion ri­val, the Browns, in their game against Bal­ti­more.

FRANK VICTORES AP

Coach Marvin Lewis, whose Ben­gals haven’t reached the post­sea­son since 2015, says he doesn’t be­lieve Sun­day’s out­come against the Steel­ers will have any ef­fect on his fu­ture.

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