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Bengals can play spoilers again
For the second straight year, the Cincinnati Bengals are playing in a meaningful game in Week 17 and yet again it will be as an opponent attempting to spoil things for an AFC North rival.
Cincinnati's playoff chances evaporated with a six-game losing streak that featured plenty of injuries and ugly moments.
And for those rooting against the Steelers will be hoping Jeff Driskel instead of Andy Dalton can deliver some winning plays to keep Pittsburgh from the postseason.
"I don't think it has much to do with the spoiler role," Driskel said. "Any time we play the Steelers or any division opponent, it's a big game for us, and we understand that. We also understand that it's our last opportunity this year, so we want to go out on a high note."
The Bengals did not when the teams met earlier this season in Cincinnati in a game decided on Antonio Brown's game-winning touchdown. The 28-21 loss took place so long ago on Oct. 14 that it was only Cincinnati's second loss of the season. It also occurred so long ago that three starters (Dalton, A.J. Green, and Preston Brown) are out with season-ending injuries.
"As we look forward to our game against Pittsburgh, it's rare to get ready to play a team that's had two receivers (Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster) catch 100 passes in a year," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "These guys have had great seasons. In the last couple of games, they've been throwing the ball quite a bit."
What's left is a youthful core of Joe Mixon, Sam Hubbard and Jessie Bates trying to do what the Bengals did on the final week of last season when Dalton connected with Tyler Boyd on a 49-yard touchdown with 44 seconds remaining to give Cincinnati a 31-27 lead and keep Baltimore from the playoffs.
"It's very frustrating," Mixon said. "I've never been part of a losing program and I'm never going to be comfortable with losing. At the end of the day, man, I'll take it for what it is. Build and try to get better for next year."
Of course, potentially keeping a division rival from the postseason is not the only source of intrigue.
The other involves Lewis, the second-longest-tenured head coach in the league behind Bill Belichick. Unlike Belichick, not only does Lewis not own a Super Bowl victory, but he also is without a playoff win and since the Bengals will finish a third straight losing season and in last place for the first time since 2010, it is being wondered if this is when the Bengals make a coaching change.
Since the start of the 2003 season when Lewis took over, there have been 125 coaching changes throughout the league.
"I don't know," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said when asked about Lewis' fate. "A lot of things happen. Everybody is making business decisions."
Until the season ends, the Bengals will try to shore up their business against a divisional rival, especially on defense where the numbers are not pretty.
While going 1-4 in divisional games, they're allowing an average of 429 yards and 27 points. Opposing quarterbacks in those games are completing 67 percent of their passes while getting eight yards per completion and getting 13 touchdowns, including the one by Brown against an all-out blitz.
"I feel like we should never be in last place in the division and we are now," Dunlap said. "We have a lot of talent and we're underperforming. So we need to figure out why. I don't think injuries (are) the only answer. I feel like we were doing it before we got hurt."
Whether it's injuries or underperformance, defensive issues are a significant reason why the Bengals are closing out a last-place season.
SERIES HISTORY: 97th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 61-35. The Bengals have lost their two visits to Pittsburgh since Nov. 1, 2015, and six straight regular-season meetings with four being decided by eight points or less.