Point/Counterpoint: Harris, Brown on the Steelers-Bengals game
Steelers columnist John Harris and beat writer Scott Brown look at the upcoming AFC North showdown at Heinz Field
Brown: John, what is most surprising to you: that the Bengals are halfway to making Chad What's-His-Name's prediction of 12-4 come true, that the Bengals — the Bengals! — can seize control of the division with a win Sunday or that they are in position to sweep the season series with the Steelers for the first time since 1998?
Harris: I think the possibility of the Bengals taking control of the division, PLUS the fact they can do it by sweeping the Steelers is the biggest surprise for me. I just didn't expect this. Marvin Lewis was supposedly on the hot seat. I don't think the Bengals need to win Sunday to legitimize themselves. They can still make the playoffs and not win the division. Beating the Steelers a second time, however, would send a message that the Bengals are definitely for real.
Brown: They only thing that makes the Bengals suspect to me is they are, well, the Bengals. Other than that, it's hard to find reasons why this team won't maintain its pace, or something close to it, in the second half of the season. The return of Carson Palmer and the return to form by Chad What's-His-Name has made running back Cedric Benson even better, and vice versa. The Bengals not only have the balance they have lacked on offense that past couple of seasons. Their defense also has some bite to it, and it has not faltered even with the loss of sack master Antwan Odom, who is out for the rest of the season because of a foot injury.
Harris: It's funny, but after all these years Marvin Lewis has finally emerged as a head coach with a strong defense. That was Lewis' background with Baltimore, back when the Ravens won Super Bowl XXV and he was Baltimore's defensive coordinator. For the first time in Cincinnati, Lewis appears to be coaching his kind of team — strong defense and a power ground attack fueled by Cedric Benson. That's why the Bengals are probably going to be in the AFC North race for the long haul.
Brown: OK, so we agree on at least one thing: Mustard Man and the Bengals are here to stay. Let's see if we differ on how the game will play out. I think the Steelers win fairly big, and here is why. They are going to score against the Bengals just because of the balance and big-play capability they have been showing on offense. And, I don't see the Bengals scoring a whole lot of points though the wild cards in that equation are turnovers and special-teams breakdowns. If the Steelers stay away from those, I don't see Cincinnati doing much against a defense that is playing at a very high level right now — and one that hasn't forgotten about the fourth-quarter lead it squandered earlier this season in Cincinnati.
Harris: This is getting scary. We agree too much on this topic, but what are you going to do• I, too, see the Steelers winning fairly easily. Rashard Mendenhall was a bystander in the first game. He's a gamebreaker, compared to being a heartbreaker when coach Mike Tomlin sat him in that September meeting for a poor week of practice. The Bengals must account for him, without Odom, along with a passing attack that has gotten significantly better than it was in the third week of the season. Defensively, the Steelers now have a pass rush. That wasn't the case in the first Cincinnati game, when Carson Palmer had enough time to stand in the pocket and finish a Primanti Brothers sandwich before picking out a receiver.
Brown: I have two guarantees: One, the next time we agree on something is the next time Mike Tomlin asks you to be a guest play-caller for a game. Two, there is no way defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is going to allow Palmer to get as comfortable in the pocket as the Bengals quarterback did the last time AFC North rivals played. Remember, LeBeau has Troy Polamalu at his disposal this time around. He'll also have 60,000-plus fans trying to make the afternoon a miserable one for Palmer, Polamalu's former roommate at USC. Steelers 27, Bengals 10.
Harris: I should pick the Bengals to win just to be contrary but I can't. The Steelers are too good, it's the time of the season when they begin playing their best football, and I have a reputation to uphold. Palmer may have gotten a little too comfortable when he told reporters how much time he had to pass the last time the teams played. I say the Steelers impose their will in a 27-20 victory.