Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin was in rare form this week.
Tomlin boasted about Cincinnati's numerous "Pro Bowl-caliber players." He constantly praised the Bengals' offense that is ranked last in the NFL. Tomlin also talked up a defense Pittsburgh torched for 38 points in October.
Although to the casual observer some of it came off as lip service, the message Tomlin was getting across was clear: Every game is dangerous in the NFL.
"For whatever reason, they are what they are from a record standpoint," Tomlin said of the 1-8-1 Bengals. "But we respect those guys and we will respect this matchup. This is a division football game."
If there was ever a definition of a trap game, Thursday night's 8:15 ET matchup between the Steelers and Bengals would be it.
Pittsburgh (7-3) aim
s to earn another AFC North title and possibly a bye in the first round of the playoffs. Cincinnati has nothing to lose and will try to relish the role of spoiler for the third straight game, despite receiver Chad Ocho Cinco being deactivated Thursday for violating a team rule.
The placement of the game on a short week also is tough for Pittsburgh. It comes after a pair of tough home games (loss to Colts, win over Chargers) for the Steelers and before two huge showdowns against the New England Patriots (6-4) and Dallas Cowboys (6-4).
It also doesn't help Pittsburgh that Cincinnati is playing its best football of the season.
The Bengals are the only AFC North team that has yet to lose a game in November. They earned their first win against Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6), ruining the Jags' playoff hopes on Nov. 2. Following a bye, Cincinnati tied with the Philadelphia Eagles (5-4-1) last weekend, dealing another tough blow to a playoff hopeful.
Pittsburgh cruised against Cincinnati during a 38-10 Week 7 rout at Paul Brown Stadium, but the Bengals are playing better now. Cincinnati also has found a way to beat Pittsburgh in two of its past three visits to Heinz Field.
"We acknowledge that they're a team in transition," Tomlin said. "They're a team that's different from the one that we played just a few weeks ago. It appears that they're finding a rhythm in all three phases."
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is 2-2 in its past four games and has been inconsistent, particularly on offense.
Teams are dropping back in coverage and taking away the big plays. In Week 11's 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh had a 300-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger), 100-yard receiver (Hines Ward) and 100-yard rusher (Willie Parker) but failed to get in the end zone.
The lack of touchdown production has a lot of Pittsburgh fans uneasy. The Steelers are ranked No. 25 in total offense and have been carried by their top-ranked defense for most of the season.
If the scrappy Bengals can find a way to hold the Steelers to field goals in this game, it could put Cincinnati in position to pull off the upset in the fourth quarter.
"All that matters is we win the game, to tell you the truth," Roethlisberger said. "It doesn't matter if we win 50-0 or 1-0 or 11-10. A win is a win no matter how we get it."
An interesting subplot Thursday night will be the game within the game between Cincinnati's defense and Ward. The Steelers' leading receiver set the tone on the opening drive of the last meeting with a crushing block that broke the jaw of Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers, ending his season.
There was talk of retaliation amongst the Bengals when the incident first occurred, but that talk has since tailed off. No Cincinnati players mentioned it publicly this week and Ward said he wasn't sure how the Bengals will react, but he said he will be ready.
Pittsburgh entered the season with the NFL's toughest strength of schedule. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Steelers can become just the fourth team since 2002 to make the playoffs with that distinction.
If Pittsburgh wants to accomplish that feat, the team will have to avoid these type of dangerous trap games the rest of the season.
"They're dangerous," Tomlin said of the Bengals. "But so are we."