The Bengals have lost nine straight games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. (US Presswire)

Predicting the NFL rarely equals a winning exercise. Just ask anybody sulking inside a Las Vegas Sportsbook on a Sunday afternoon. Upsets, injuries and momentum create a regular roller coaster rarely equaled by any sport.

Yet, when the schedule was released in April, it seemed all but inevitable that the Bengals' season would ride on the final two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Few predicted it would unravel to this spot tracing such an unorthodox path, but with two weeks left in season the Bengals stand exactly where most thought they would: Needing to prove they can beat Pittsburgh or Baltimore to make the playoffs.

Can this young, evolving Bengals group take the next step past the established flag-bearers? Every shrewd draft move, every hiring, every practice, every personnel decision boils down to that singular question. Until the Bengals prove they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the question will never change. Any compliment will be followed with, "Yeah, but."

In the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green Bengals reboot of 2011, successes came in nearly every area. They've won big games,, blown teams out, developed Pro Bowlers, even made the playoffs. Yet, the Bengals will be rightly dismissed until they can knock off the kings of the division.

It's the last major hurdle.

“Yes, because we really haven’t done anything yet,” S Chris Crocker said. “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. 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.”

Half of this team doesn't know what beating the Steelers or Ravens feels like.

The Bengals have lost nine in a row against the two teams. The last win came Sept. 15, 2010, against Baltimore. Only 25 of the team's current 53 players were on the roster that day.

Of those nine losses, six came by one possession. Cincinnati continues to be close -- but unable to take the next step. With the Steelers having lost four of five and the Ravens having lost three straight, breaking through is more attainable than ever --- and more important. A loss Sunday and the Bengals will need help to make the postseason. A win and they all but stamp their ticket.

“We just know that we have to beat them otherwise what we’ve done up to this point doesn’t mean anything,”  DE Carlos Dunlap said. “So, basically, it’s Steelers week. We wouldn’t rather be playing anybody else, especially not with what’s at stake. We know what’s at stake.”

What's at stake is a young team taking the next step and seizing the swagger necessary to beat the best of the AFC North.

“(The Steelers) have been there, done that and played in many big games,” Crocker said. “A lot of those guys have been there for a long time, so it’s the feeling that I have, the guy in the locker next to me is going to have to have the same feeling, and it’s like a bug. Everybody picks it up. That’s the thing about confidence. You can’t play big in this game unless you have a lot of confidence.”

Only one way remains to gain that confidence. There are no backdoor playoff entries like last year or easy schedules to prey on.

“We have to win this game,” Crocker said. “Let’s just win this game. Let’s win and let luck fall where it will fall. But we can beat this team.”

Follow Paul Dehner Jr for Bengals updates on Twitter at @CBSBengals.