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Playoffs on the line in big Bengals-Steelers matchup

PITTSBURGH — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants the league to consider expanding the playoffs.

Consider the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals a litmus test.

The official post-season doesn’t start for another two weeks, but the AFC North rivals are getting an early start on Sunday in what amounts to an elimination game. The Steelers (7-7) need two wins to play into January while the Bengals (8-6) need at least one more victory to assure themselves a rare second straight playoff berth.

Cincinnati hasn’t made consecutive post-season appearances since 1981-82, or before all but five players on the current roster were even born.

“We can’t control the past,” wide receiver A.J. Green said.

Maybe, but the Bengals control the present. They’ve won five out of six — the only loss coming on a last-second field goal loss to Dallas — and can still capture the AFC North title with victories over the Steelers and Ravens and a little help.

Heady territory for a franchise that has spent most of the last two decades serving as both a national punching bag for its two main rivals, though the Bengals are downplaying the chance to make a statement against teams considered part of the NFL’s elite.

“It’s not as much about Pittsburgh as it is about us,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We’ve got an opportunity to go to the playoffs.”

Amazingly, the Steelers do too, despite their second-worst stretch in coach Mike Tomlin’s six years on the job. Pittsburgh has dropped four of five, including baffling losses to Cleveland and San Diego. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been nursing a sprained shoulder and the nagging perception he and offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley won’t be exchanging Christmas cards.

Roethlisberger vented about the direction of the offence after a 27-24 overtime loss to Dallas last weekend, though he backtracked a few days later and Tomlin insisted his franchise cornerstone and his fiery co-ordinator are on the same page.

Maybe, but the latest dust-up offered another chapter in an increasingly long series of melodramas that have evaporated the sense of optimism following a 24-20 victory over the New York Giants on Nov. 4 that appeared to cement the notion the Steelers were back after a slow start.

 
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