The Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) will try to earn their franchise-record fifth consecutive playoff berth when they visit an NFC West opponent at 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday. The San Francisco 49ers (4-9) will be out to derail those hopes. Here are things to watch for during the game:
Why watch? At times against the Steelers in Week 14, the Bengals were a fractured bunch defensively. Cohesion was occasionally lacking. With a game that had its share of pregame drama and off-field storylines that involved some Bengals' physical style of play, there was animosity on both sides. Some Bengals later felt they did poor jobs of putting such issues out of their minds during the game. "Sometimes we didn't keep the main thing as a defense, as a team," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "The main thing is to win. Whatever you have to do to win, just do it. We weren't doing that at all times. We were just getting into personal battles sometimes. If we don't learn from that, that will be a travesty."
When they take on the 49ers, the Bengals won't be facing a team they dislike with the same level of passion as the Steelers. Pittsburgh, after all, is a division rival, with whom the Bengals have a physical history. After seven players were fined for actions in the Steelers' win in Cincinnati, this Sunday's game is worth keeping an eye on to see if the Bengals learned their lesson and play with more of the poise Marvin Lewis has been preaching.
Keep your eyes peeled ... For how the Bengals defense plays on third down. The unit allowed the Steelers to convert on eight of 14 third-down opportunities, the highest percentage (57.1) Cincinnati has allowed all year. What happened? "Big Ben was making plays," Rey said of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "He was moving around in the pocket, he was getting rid of the ball early sometimes. Heath Miller was making great plays, 84 [Antonio Brown] was making great plays. Man, they were just making plays on us on third down."
Since the Bengals held the Steelers to a 3-of-11 third-down performance in Week 8, the defense has been getting increasingly worse at preventing conversions. Across the past four weeks alone, Cincinnati has allowed its opponents to convert, on average, 47.2 percent of their third downs -- quite high for a unit that entered this week ranked second in scoring defense.
Did you know? San Francisco has flat-out had Cincinnati's number over the years. Including the two Super Bowl victories over the Bengals, following the 1981 and 1988 seasons, the 49ers hold an 11-3 advantage in the series. Many of those games have been close ones, though. Eight of the past nine 49ers wins have been decided by seven or fewer points. The Bengals are favored in this matchup by more than 10 points, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. ... In their past seven games against the NFC West -- since 2011, when Andy Dalton became quarterback -- the Bengals are 5-2, including victories against two of the three teams they've played from that division this season.