Future is now for these young Bengals

Young Bengals such as Kevin Zeitler, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green could lead a changing of the guard in the AFC North. AP Photo/Kevin Terrell

If the Bengals beat the Steelers on Sunday, they will clinch a playoff berth in consecutive years for the first time since 1981-82. It will mark only the second time in the franchise's 45-year history that Cincinnati will reach the postseason in back-to-back seasons.

But Sunday's game at Heinz Field has more on the line than a history lesson. This is about the future of these young Bengals and the balance of power in the AFC North.

Since the Bengals drafted wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton in 2011, they have gone a combined 0-6 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Against the rest of the league, Cincinnati is 17-7.

"If you want to take the next step, you’ve got to be able to beat those teams, Baltimore and Pittsburgh," Green said earlier this year.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the measuring sticks for the Bengals. The Ravens and Steelers have won the AFC North eight times in the division's 10-year existence. They have each gone to the playoffs four times in the previous five seasons. Pittsburgh reached the Super Bowl in 2010, and Baltimore was one completed pass away from getting there last season.

The importance of these next two games for the Bengals -- at Pittsburgh and at home against Baltimore -- goes beyond playoff implications and postseason seedings. The Bengals have been the best team in AFC North in the second half of the season, and it's time for them to prove it on the field against the division's two most accomplished teams.

And there's no better opportunity to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore than right now. The Steelers have lost four of their past five games. The Ravens have dropped three straight. The Bengals, however, have won five of their past six games.

The Steelers and Ravens have been wearing down late in the season, with injuries playing a big part in their December decline. The Bengals have avoided the same widespread bumps and bruises. This may be more than luck. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have aging rosters. The Steelers have 16 players on their 53-man roster who are 30 or older. The Ravens will have 14 when Ray Lewis is activated.

The Bengals have only six 30-plus players, and two of them are kickers. On offense, Cincinnati starts three rookies (guard Kevin Zeitler, center Trevor Robinson and wide receiver Marvin Jones) and two second-year players (Dalton and Green). The only starters on defense over 30 are cornerback Terence Newman and safety Chris Crocker.

The youth movement in Cincinnati really stands out when you look at the last time the Bengals beat the Steelers. It was only three years ago, but the leading passer was Carson Palmer, the leading receiver was Laveranues Coles and the leading tackler was Johnathan Joseph.

"I’m not going to say this is a defining moment because we play these guys twice a year but this is very big, especially at the end of the season," Crocker told the team's official website. "We’re picking up momentum. These teams are postseason teams every year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always in the postseason and they always go deep so it’s important for us to play well against them now in order to go in with some momentum if we do make the postseason. It is big."

The next two games are bigger to Dalton than to anyone else on the roster. In six games against the Steelers and Ravens, Dalton has completed 52 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 64.1 passer rating. In 24 games against the rest of the NFL, Dalton has completed 62 percent of his throws with 41 touchdowns and 20 interceptions for a 90.1 rating.

Dalton has struggled against the Steelers more than any other team. He's averaged 13 completions and 136.6 yards passing against Pittsburgh. In his only trip to Heinz Field, Dalton threw for 135 yards, was sacked three times by linebacker James Harrison and spent the fourth quarter on the bench after being pulled.

A Pro Bowl quarterback as a rookie, Dalton has produced some impressive numbers. He has joined Dan Marino and Peyton Manning as the only players to throw 20 or more touchdown passes in each of their first two seasons. Last season, Dalton became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw as many as 20 touchdown passes and start in as many as eight wins.

But this season has been an up-and-down one for Dalton. He's holding on to the ball too long and he's been more erratic on his throws this year. Dalton was intercepted in 10 of his first 13 games this season and fumbled twice this past Thursday in Philadelphia.

The Bengals need a stronger effort from Dalton if they want to achieve their goals. By winning Sunday, they would not only earn a postseason berth but they would knock Pittsburgh out of the playoff race. If Cincinnati beats the Steelers and the Ravens, there's a chance the Bengals could win the division (Baltimore would have to lose its last two games in order for that to happen).

For the next two weeks, it's about making the playoffs and making a statement.

"We're in control of everything. That's how you want to have it," Dalton said. "In December, you want to be able to have a chance for the playoffs and be in control of that. We've got two big games in the next two weeks, and a lot's going to be decided in these last two. But we'll be ready to go."