Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Monday December 16, 01:30
Live on Channel 4
The Cincinnati Bengals stand on the threshold of their third postseason berth in as many years and a victory tonight against their divisional rivals in Pittsburgh will secure it. It would also effectively lock up the AFC North title and put them in prime position to snatch the conference's number two seeding away from the New England Patriots, who are faltering with the line in sight and star receiver Rob Gronkowski out of action. The Bengals hold the crucial tie-breaker head-to-head over the Pats.
Yet such play-off prognostication is not for now. First a victory is required at one of the most hostile venues in the game. A raucous Steeler Nation welcomes the Bengals to Heinz Field, a stage so intimidating that Batman baddie Bane saw fit to hold his coming-out parade here in The Dark Knight Rises. Not that the Steelers have taken advantage of these home comforts. Pittsburgh have limped to 5-8 and only winning the last three for a 50-50 record will give them a shot at the final wildcard spot.
The Steelers' struggles have invariably been summed up by lazy ageist criticism. And while it's true that some of their pivotal playmakers are looking over the hill - injury and 32 years have slowed 2010's Player of the Year, Troy Polmalu - most of their defense still have some good years in them. Indeed, only three others have hit 30.
That said, harrying speed is the hallmark of most safeties and perhaps a lost yard of pace has created a weakness in the storied Steel Curtain. The ripple effect of this pedestrianism has blown some holes in the defensive schemes of Dick LeBeau, whose zonal blitzes just aren't getting to the quarterback quickly enough. Good news for Cincy's Andy Dalton who is benefiting from more time in the pocket this term.
But for all Dalton's developing maturity, the meat-and-drink gains of this team have been on the ground via the one-two punch of rushers BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani. This pair has partnered up for 10 touchdowns and a whopping 1,282 yards on the ground and double-digit touchdowns, so the threat they pose is obvious.
Nevertheless, Pittsburgh still seem capable against this progressively one-dimensional offense, especially at home where the cacophony of Heinz Field should see Dalton deferring to his running backs more often. Unlike Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger has stepped up in recent games, connecting with 63% of his passes for 11 TDs and no interceptions.
Make no mistake, Big Ben is a believer who knows the time of day when it comes to the sharp end of the season. Faced with a divisional foe over whom he enjoys a 14-6 superiority and buoyed by a boisterous Christmas crowd, Ben and his boys shouldn't lack for motivation. The Bengals may have one of the league's top pass-rushing outfits, but Roethlisberger also has RB Le'Veon Bell to rely on for moving the chains.
So while the field-goal handicap afforded to Pittsburgh either shows how far they have fallen or how far Cincy have come, it looks all kinds of attractive as the best bet tonight - considering homefield advantage, sub-zero temperatures and the match-ups on key personnel. The Bengals won't bungle the AFC North - at least I hope not since they were my headline divisional tip for the year. However, they could let the number two seed get away from them here.
Back Pittsburgh Steelers to beat Cincinnati Bengals on Moneyline @ 2.2 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+2.5) to beat Cincinnati Bengals on Match Handicap @ 1.94 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+1.5) to beat Cincinnati Bengals on First Half Handicap @ 1.82 or better
Back Under 21.5 Cincinnati Bengals Total Points @ 1.91 or better
Back L.Bell to be First Touchdown Scorer @ 10.0 or better