If there’s one thing the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers despise more than each other, it’s losing.
Especially in January.
Unfortunately for both teams, it’s all they’ve known for quite some time.
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The Steelers come into Saturday’s AFC wild-card playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium riding a three-game postseason losing streak. Their last playoff victory was 1,812 days ago, which probably seems like a mere smoke break to a Cincinnati franchise and fan base that have gone 9,133 days without tasting postseason success.
The Bengals’ drought, which dates to January 1991 and is the longest active one in the NFL, includes losses in four consecutive seasons and five of the last six.
Combine Cincinnati’s playoff futility with the problem that is the Steelers — who have won 13 of their last 15 games at PBS, including a penalty- and fine-marred 33-20 brawl Dec. 13 — and it’s easy to see why Pittsburgh is a 2.5-point favorite to extend the misery for the Bengals.
“I don’t think there’s a guy in this locker room concerned with the last four years or how it went the last time we played these guys,” he added. “I think we see it as there are 12 teams in this thing and we want to be the last one standing.”
If the third-seeded Bengals, who tied a franchise mark with a 12-4 record in the regular season to win their third AFC North Division title in seven years, are able to end the drought and win, they will travel to play No. 2 New England (12-4) next Saturday.
If the sixth-seeded Steelers (10-6) prevail, they will play at No. 1 seed Denver (12-4) next Sunday.
“We’re all defined in January and February ball,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “So we’re still writing that script.”
Both teams will be without key starters. For the Bengals, it’s starting quarterback Andy Dalton, who fractured his thumb while making a tackle after throwing an interception in the Dec. 13 loss to the Steelers.
That means Cincinnati will go with AJ McCarron in his fourth career start while Pittsburgh counters with future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, who is 10-5 in his postseason career with a pair of Super Bowl championships.
“I’m taking it one day at a time,” said McCarron, who threw two interceptions against the Steelers in relief of Dalton but none since. “I don’t think into the future or live in the past. It’s just the present right now. I’m having fun with it. It’s a cool experience. It’s an awesome opportunity.”
As inexperienced as McCarron is, he has more recent snaps under his belt that the key backups the Steelers will have to turn to after running back DeAngelo Williams injured his foot in the season finale at Cleveland.
Pittsburgh is expected to use a combination of Fitzgerald Toussaint, who has 18 carries this year, and Jordan Todman (four).
“We may look a little different,” Tomlin said. “We may not ask them to do some of the things specifically that we asked DeAngelo to do. But we expect those guys to be capable of delivering winning football for us, just like we expected DeAngelo to provide winning football for us when he stepped in for Le’Veon (Bell).”
While the Steelers may look different, the Bengals are hoping to feel different.
Six of the seven consecutive playoff losses the franchise has endured have come in the Lewis era.
His teams have lost the turnover margin 13-2, and since 2011 the Bengals have been outscored in the second half of their four playoff losses, 57-6.
Lewis was asked what it would mean to him personally to win a playoff game given his 0-6 record.
“One-and-six,” he said. “That’s all. It’s important to move on and win. Our guys have worked hard, we have to come out and play great football. That’s what’s key and paramount. It’s not personal to me. It’s an important game for our football team because it keeps our goals in line. Now that we’re in our second season, there’s a finality to this.
“We have to play error-free football,” he continued. “On offense, defense, and special teams, we have to make things happen. Our good players have to rise up and play great. That’s part of winning here in January.”
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