AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — All week long, they played nice. The Bengals and the Steelers went out of their way to curb their comments about how they really feel about each other.
Umm, let’s talk about something else. Treat it like just a game. Forget that rivalry stuff.
“All that stuff’s over when you get into the playoffs,” Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “It really doesn’t matter who it is or what division they’re from.”
Sorry. Nobody’s buying it.
The Ohio River rivals have such a deep dislike for each other that they traded nasty words and tweets before they met at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 13, and then scuffled on the field during pregame warmups. There were so many personal fouls during the game that the league handed out more than $100,000 in fines.
Four weeks later, the only difference is that the stakes are higher.
The Bengals (12-4) are putting their 25-year streak of playoff futility on the line against the Steelers (10-6) on Saturday night, trying to do a better job of keeping their cool. They got caught up in the emotion and suffered a meltdown four weeks ago, a 33-20 defeat that basically cost them a playoff bye and their starting quarterback.
Andy Dalton was leading the league in passer rating when he broke his thumb while making a tackle during an interception return. AJ McCarron took over and threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
And the trash talking went on endlessly, getting so out of hand that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talked about it by phone the following day.
Television monitors in the Bengals locker room this week had the usual schedule of activities, plus a quote from franchise founder Paul Brown: “The key to winning is poise under stress.”
Translation: Cool it.
And that goes for the Steelers, too. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert tweeted — and later deleted — after the win four weeks ago: “All I want for Christmas is the Bengals. Would love to see them in the playoffs where they choke. The talking is done between the lines.”
They’re saving it for Saturday.
“We left that behind us,” Gilbert said. “I know those guys, they’re not trying to get suspended or lose any money out of their pockets the third go-round. … All that stuff that happened weeks back is out of the window. We’re trying to get this win as badly as they are.”
Five things to watch on Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium:
THE HISTORY: Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. Coach Marvin Lewis is 0-6, tied with Jim Mora for most consecutive playoff losses to start a career. The Steelers and Bengals have met only once in the playoffs, and that was 10 years ago when Carson Palmer got his knee torn up on his first pass and Pittsburgh won 31-17. The Steelers are 14-3 all time at Paul Brown Stadium, which opened in 2000.
McCARRON’S BIG MOMENT: McCarron hasn’t thrown an interception in his three starts in Dalton’s place, leading the Bengals to a 2-1 mark. He won two national championships at Alabama and thinks his experience in big games should help on Saturday. History is against him: No quarterback with so little NFL starting experience has won a playoff game since Gifford Nielsen led the Houston Oilers over the Chargers in the 1979 season.
SHUTDOWN DEFENSE: Cincinnati gave up 279 points, the fewest in franchise history and the fewest in the AFC. The Oilers won that game in 1979 with an inexperienced quarterback because Houston’s defense picked off Dan Fouts five times. The Bengals intercepted Ben Roethlisberger three times for a 16-10 win at Heinz Field on Nov. 1.
READY TO RUN?: A year ago, the Steelers entered the playoffs without their top running back. This season, it’s even worse, as both Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams are out. That leaves unproven Fitzgerald Toussaint and well-traveled Jordan Todman as the top options against one of the NFL’s best run defenses. Toussaint and Todman combined for 64 yards in limited action this fall.
Last year Pittsburgh signed Ben Tate off the street and gave him a crash-course for a wild-card game against Baltimore. Tate managed 19 yards on five carries, with a fumble mixed in.
“I think we’ve got guys that have stepped up all year and don’t see why this should be any different, whether it’s Todman, Fitz, Will Johnson,” Roethlisberger said. “Whoever it is at running back the good thing is they’ve been here all year. They know the system. They know what to do and we expect them to step up and be up to speed.”
CHALLENGING MARTAVIS: Roethlisberger called out talented but inconsistent second-year wide receiver Martavis Bryant during the week, saying on his radio show that Bryant needed to “toughen up” after he managed just two receptions for 6 yards over the final two games.