The seats are dark green instead of mustard yellow. The home team wears full stripes instead of a half-adorned helmet. Otherwise, Paul Brown Stadium feels awfully homey for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They’ve won 10 of their last 11 at the stadium along the Ohio River – about 300 miles downstream from their own field where the river is formed. Since the stadium opened in 2000, they’ve gone 11-2, an impressive record that includes a 2005 playoff victory.
The Steelers (2-3) will need every bit of their away-from-home-field advantage tonight in a game that represents a fork in the river for both teams.
Pittsburgh is 0-3 on the road, losing at Denver, Oakland and Tennessee. The Steelers haven’t opened a season 0-4 on the road since 2006. The Bengals (3-3) have dropped their last two games overall, leaving them in a tough spot heading into the toughest stretch of their schedule.
Not just another game for either of these river rivals.
“I don’t think we can afford another loss this whole entire season,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said.
The Bengals can relate.
“It’s like I’ve been saying: For us to get to where we want to be, we’ve got to beat opponents like this,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “So we need to get a win, and that’s what it comes down to.”
Adding to their urgency is Baltimore’s fast start in the AFC North. The Ravens are 5-1, giving them an early cushion. The Steelers and Bengals can’t afford to let the gap grow if they intend to challenge for the title.
“Oh yeah, this is a must-win game for us,” Bengals receiver A.J. Green said.
In this stadium, the Steelers almost always get it.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 7-1 at Paul Brown Stadium. He grew up in Ohio and attended Miami University, a 45-minute drive north of Cincinnati. He and the Steelers feel right at home with thousands of towel-twirling Steelers fans filling the place.
Feels real comfy, actually.
“We’re excited to go on the road, and we’re excited to go into a hostile environment,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s Sunday Night Football, so it’s going to be fun. We usually have a lot of Steelers fans when we play so close to home, so we’re really looking forward to going to Cincinnati this week.”
Roethlisberger leads an offense converting 51.9 percent of third downs, the best in the league. The Steelers are leaning on him as much as ever with running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles tendon) and Isaac Redman (ankle) limited by injuries.
The offensive line also is in flux because of injuries, which is a bad combination. The Steelers rank 31st in rushing in the NFL.
“You know, we’re piecing it together right now,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve had some lineup changes in the backfield and on the offensive line but from our perspective, we’re capable of playing better.”
It’s the first AFC North game for the Steelers, who don’t get into the heart of their division schedule until mid-November, when they play Baltimore, Cleveland and Baltimore again during a three-week stretch.
Three AFC North teams reached the playoffs last season, partly a factor of a favorable schedule outside the division. That’s not likely to happen this year.
“We know if we want to do anything and go to the playoffs, it starts in our division,” receiver Antonio Brown said. “This week we have an opportunity to start in our division and get some things cleaned up.”
For Cincinnati, it’s a chance to get that long-awaited breakthrough.
The Bengals got a wild card berth last season with a 9-7 record that included no wins over other playoff teams. They went 0-4 against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, showing there’s still a big gap between them and the division’s best.
This year, they had a chance to show they’d closed the gap when they played at Baltimore in a Monday night opener. They got blown out 44-13, matching the most lopsided season-opening loss in franchise history.
They’re 1-2 in the division after a 34-24 loss in Cleveland last Sunday, prompting all the talk about needing to win this week.
“Yeah, you can throw for a bunch of yards,” said Dalton, who reached the Pro Bowl as a rookie without beating either Pittsburgh or Baltimore. “Yeah, you can do whatever. But if you’re not winning games, it doesn’t really matter.
“So we’ve got to beat teams like the Steelers and the Ravens and the other good teams. It’s definitely a good test for us.”
One they can’t afford to flunk.
“I told our players: This is an exciting game,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “Man, this is what you want to have. You’ve got the opportunity. This is a big game, a big stage – huge stage. To me, it’s just such an exciting opportunity to have.”