Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals (+2.5 46.5 o/u)
The third meeting of the year between the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6, 4-4 road) and Cincinnati Bengals (12-4, 6-2 home) will function as the rubber match. The AFC North rivals will meet on Wild Card Weekend this Saturday (8:15 p.m. Eastern) at Paul Brown Stadium, with the Bengals looking for their first playoff win since 1990.
Both the Steelers and Bengals are guided by successful head coaches, at least in terms of regular season success. Cincy boss Marvin Lewis has amassed a 52-27 record over the past five seasons and led his team to five straight playoff appearances. Mike Tomlin is 92-52 in his tenure with the Steelers. But the coaches’ respective records diverge when you look at postseason numbers. Tomlin is 5-4 in the playoffs and has a Super Bowl ring (2008). Lewis, on the other hand, is 0-6 in the playoffs and has lost on Wild Card Weekend each of the last four years.
Though Pittsburgh entered Week 17 needing help to reach the postseason, Tomlin did a nice job of navigating his team through an injury-riddled season. The team lost star running back Le’Veon Bell in Week 8 and was without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the middle of the campaign. After Mike Vick and Landry Jones staked them to a 4-4 start, the Steelers won five of their next six to emerge as Wild Card favorites. However, a stunning 20-17 loss at Baltimore saw their playoff fate fall into the hands of the New York Jets.
Luckily for Tomlin’s crew, the Jets lost at Buffalo in the final week of the season. Coupled with a Pittsburgh win over Cleveland in Week 17, the Steelers earned the final playoff spot.
All told, three of their ten wins came against playoff teams and they went 8-6-2 against the spread (4-3-1 road).
The Steelers mostly won with offense this year, even though Big Ben and Bell only saw limited action. DeAngelo Williams kept the ground game viable while the receiving trio of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton torched opposing secondaries all season. Pittsburgh’s third-rated passing game helped produce 26.4 points a game, fourth in the NFL.
The injury problems continued for the team in Week 17, however. Williams injured his foot and is now listed as day-to-day. Even if he suits up, he’s likely to be slowed.
Without Williams, Pittsburgh may need its defense to step up. The unit was middling for most of the season, yielding 19.9 points a game (11th in the league) overall, and 21.5 in the second half of the year. In seven games against playoff teams, they gave up 23.7 points on average.
Cincinnati began the season 8-0 including a 16-10 win at Pittsburgh. During the first half of the year they beat Kansas City, and Seattle. After losses to the Texans and Cardinals, the Bengals beat four teams who failed to reach the post-season while losing to Pittsburgh 33-20, and Denver 20-17 down the stretch. The Bengals went 12-3-1 against the spread including a perfect mark on the road, and a 4-3-1 record at home. Five of their last six games have stayed under the total.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was having a Pro Bowl season but broke his right thumb against the Steelers in Week 14 and hasn’t played since. AJ McCarron, who’s likely to get the start on Saturday, has been serviceable but not spectacular in Dalton’s absence.
Despite average numbers in the pass and run games, Cincinnati has managed the seventh-most points in the league (26.2 per game). With Dalton out, Lewis will hope to hang his hat on Cincy’s defense, a unit that allowed just 17.4 points a contest, second in the NFL. Like the offense, the D doesn’t truly excel in any one area, but is solid all around; they are third in the league in turnover margin at +11, rank 11th in pass defense, and are number seven against the run.
Getting points with a home team that’s elite on defense seems almost too good to be true. Because the Bengals never win playoff games and are without their starting quarterback, maybe a degree of warning should be issued. That said, I’m very enthusiastic to bet Cincinnati and would consider both a moneyline play (+120) and buying the extra half point (-130).
Pick: Bengals +2.5.
(Photo credit: Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped from the original.)