The regular season is over and the playoff teams are set. Some raise a few eyebrows; Kansas City Chiefs and their 10-game win streak or Carolina Panthers and their near-perfect season. Minnesota Vikings has shaken things up in the NFC North by piping Green Bay Packers to the top spot of their division and both Washington Redskins and Houston Texans have limped in from weak divisions.
For the most part, certain stalwarts remain. New England Patriots, the perennial powerhouse in the AFC are joined by a Denver Broncos team rallied by Peyton Manning on Sunday for another post-season run. Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals return to the playoffs for the fifth straight year. Meanwhile, in the NFC's most recent Super Bowl winners the Seattle Seahawks and the Packers fill out the wildcard berths whilst Arizona Cardinals enjoy a bye-week having quietly gone about their business in the NFC West.
Focussing on the AFC side of the draw for the moment, the most interesting result to arise out of the final week's games was the Pittsburgh Steelers taking advantage of the New York Jets defeat to the Buffalo Bills and claiming the last playoff seed in the AFC. The Steelers victory has won them a date with their divisional rivals Cincinnati in the wildcard round.
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Pittsburgh is a difficult team to judge at the moment. Running back DeAngelo Williams, filling in for the injured Le'Veon Bell, went off injured in their victory over Cleveland in week 17. Should his injury prove to be significant, it could put a serious dent in their playoff aspirations.
However, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has one of the most devastating weapons in the NFL with wide receiver Antonio Brown. Despite throwing seven interceptions through his last five games, Big Ben has been incredibly accurate (61.5%, 76.9%, 72.7%, 70.6% and 66.7% accuracy from weeks 13-17). His yards-per-game have been consistent and he has thrown 10 touchdowns.
Most importantly, Pittsburgh has won four of their last five, only a tough loss to their division rivals the Baltimore Ravens upsetting a perfect record down the stretch. Two of those wins came against AFC playoff teams - Denver and Cincinnati. Conversely, the Bengals has gone 3-2 in their last five matches, losing both games to playoff teams - Denver and Pittsburgh.
Granted, the Bengals were without quarterback Andy Dalton from week 14 onwards. Although there are reports that a decision will be made on his availability for the playoffs on Monday, NFL's Ian Rapoport seems convinced that the Bengals' quarterback will miss at least the wildcard round. Should Dalton be available for the game with Pittsburgh, his postseason record must be of some concern.
In four years as a starter, he has led the Bengals to the playoffs only to be unceremoniously dumped out after one game (2011 lost to the Texans, 2012 the Texans, 2013 the Chargers and 2014 the Colts). If Dalton is unable to play, the responsibility falls squarely the shoulders of quarterback AJ McCarron, whose steady but unspectacular play has guided the Dalton-less Bengals for the last four weeks.
Roethlisberger, on the other hand, has a superb playoff pedigree. He has been to the post-season seven times, to the Superbowl three times and he has won the Lombardi trophy twice. This is a man who has been there and won it all, he has the experience to guide this Steelers offense past the Bengals. Pittsburgh's record versus Cincinnati since Dalton became their starting quarterback is 7-3, their record in the Bengals' Paul Brown stadium is 4-1.
Should Pittsburgh overcome the challenge of the Bengals, their reward would be a trip to Mile High and the spluttering Denver offense. Given Big Ben's propensity for raising his game at the business end of the season, Pittsburgh is a dangerous match-up for anybody this year. Roethlisberger even has the experience of taking the sixth seed Pittsburgh all the way to Superbowl glory to draw upon.
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