Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers (pick’em, 48 o/u)
He’s big! He’s Ben! And now, he’s back! The Steelers quarterback couldn’t have returned at a better time, as the AFC North was threatening to turn into a runaway for the Cincinnati Bengals (6-0, 3-0 Away). Now if Pittsburgh (4-3, 2-1 Home) can knock off their division rivals at home, the second half of the season will see an exciting race to the finish. But if Cincy continues to roll, the North crown could be all wrapped up by Thanksgiving. We’ll find out this weekend which is the case when these two teams clash at Heinz Field (1:00 PM Eastern).
The Steelers weathered the Roethlisberger-less storm, going 2-2 with their starting pivot sidelined with a knee injury. The wins came thanks to a defense that has allowed just 18.7 points per game and generated seven turnovers over the last four games. Now, with their number one quarterback back, the offense figures to get a shot in the arm, especially game-changing receiver Antonio Brown, who didn’t get near enough looks with Michael Vick and Landry Jones under center.
While the Steelers should be able to put up more points this week, will they be able to slow down a Cincy offense that has been firing on all cylinders this season? Allowing just one sack a game, the Bengal o-line has allowed Andy Dalton to stand tall in the pocket and prove, once again, that he can be a great quarterback (at least for stretches).
Even though he has amassed an incredible 14 TDs to just two interceptions, admit it, that little voice in the back of your head says he can’t keep this up. Dalton is on pace to throw just five picks after averaging 16.5 over the past four seasons.
Thanks to that quality ball protection from their QB (running back has been a different story), the Bengals only have six turnovers on the year. Meanwhile their defense has at least one takeaway in every game this season for a total of nine on the year. And, despite losing the turnover battle in two games this season, the Bengals continue to win.
An interesting game-within-the-game will see the Cincy RB duo of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard competing against Pitt’s All-Pro back, Le’Veon Bell. Both defenses are solid against the run, and Cincy should also be able to pressure a Pittsburgh o-line that has been just okay without center Maurkice Pouncey. But Bell should still be able to find yards on the ground or through the air – after all, Melvin Gordon was able to.
On the other side, Hill and Bernard should have their own share of success behind arguably the strongest o-line in the league.
In two meetings last year, the teams combined for 107 points. This year looks headed for more of the same, with each offense boasting too many weapons to be held off the scoreboard for long.
As usual, there are trends supporting both sides of the coin. Pittsburgh has won eight of the last ten games between these two – including both last year – but Roethlisberger is just 2-4 in his career in games returning from injury. The Bengals have gone 5-0-1 against the spread this year, but for his career, Marvin Lewis is just 4-7-1 straight up in games following a bye.
Not ready to see the AFC North race end, I think the Steelers are the call here.
(Photo credit: emeybee (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)