The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) punched their ticket to the 2015 playoffs with a 28-12 win over the Cleveland Browns, and got the help they needed when the Buffalo Bills upset the New York Jets 22-17 in Week 17.
Next up for the black and gold? A third date with the hated Cincinnati Bengals (12-4).
The Steelers win over the Browns and the Jets loss to the Bills allowed the Steelers to clinch the No. 6 seed in the AFC. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns, and Antonio Brown finished with 187 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions.
The Bengals had a shot at the No. 2 seed heading into the final week of the regular season, but the Denver Broncos 27-20 win over the San Diego Chargers bumped them back to the No. 3 spot, and earned them a grudge match with the Steelers. Cincinnati took down the Baltimore Ravens 24-16 in Week 17.
The Steelers lost a key component of their offense in running back DeAngelo Williams in Week 17. Williams exited the game in the first quarter with an injured right foot. He was officially listed as out on Friday. Pittsburgh will be forced to rely on second-year pro Fitzgerald Toussaint and journeyman Jordan Todman to carry the load in Cincinnati.
(Image from Steelers.com)
The Bengals, meanwhile, will also be without a key starter in Andy Dalton. The fifth-year quarterback broke his thumb in the 33-20 Week 14 loss to the Steelers while attempting to tackle defensive end Stephon Tuitt. In addition to Dalton, Cincinnati will be without defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (knee), and tight end/H-Back Ryan Hewitt (knee).
(Image from Bengals.com)
The injuries to Williams and Dalton should have a significant impact on how the game is played. The Steelers will need to rely heavily on the arm of Roethlisberger and his wide receiver trio of Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Brown. With backup quarterback AJ McCarron at the helm, the Bengals will need to rely on running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to carry the load.
(Graphic from Weather.com)
Kickoff for the Steelers-Bengals game is scheduled for 8:15 PM EST. The temperature is expected to be in mid-40s, and as Editor of Behind the Steel Curtain Jeff Hartman wrote earlier this morning, there's a 70 percent chance of rain in the forecast. At 10 PM that chance of rain is expected to turn to 100 percent. These conditions should make it a lot more difficult for the skill position players on both offenses to execute.
Steelers offense: No. 4 (26.4 PPG) vs. Bengals defense: No. 2 (17.4 PPG)
Steelers defense: No. 11 (19.9 PPG) vs. Bengals offense: No. 7 (26.2 PPG)
The Steelers and Bengals last met in Week 14 at Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton suffered a broken thumb after throwing an interception and attempting to tackle defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the first quarter of that game. Pittsburgh won the game 33-20 behind three interceptions by the defense, including a pick six by cornerback William Gay off of backup quarterback AJ McCarron.
My season record straight up: 9-3
Steelers -130 ($10.00 wins $7.69)
Bengals +110 ($10.00 wins $11.00)
Both teams will be without a key offensive player, forcing them to alter their respective game plans. I believe the difference in the game will be the ability of the Steelers front seven to stuff the Bengals rushing attack, and force McCarron to make deep throws down the field in the driving rain. Pittsburgh's run defense ranks No. 5 in the NFL (91.2 YPG).
Weather could also play a significant factor. The Steelers defense is ranked No. 3 in the NFL in forced fumbles (12). Sure, the rain will make it more challenging for Roethlisberger to drive the ball down the field, but it will also make it more difficult for the Bengals running backs to hold onto the ball running through traffic.
*Fact of note: the Steelers are 4-1 straight up in their last five games
The Play: Steelers -135
My season record against the spread: 7-3-2
Steelers -2 (-110) ($10.00 wins $9.09)
Bengals +2 (-110) ($10.00 wins $9.09)
As I'm writing this, the line just moved from Steelers -2.5 to Steelers -2. With heavy action coming in on the home team, there is no better time to jump on Pittsburgh.
This is a legacy defining game for Roethlisberger, who hasn't won a playoff game since 2011. Faced with a similar situation in the Wild Card round against Baltimore last year, Big Ben cashed in one of his worst performances of the season, throwing two costly interceptions.
I think Roethlisberger will rise to the challenge this time around, and carve up the Bengals No. 20 pass defense that's surrendering an average of 249 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks. Pittsburgh owns the league's No. 3 passing offense, averaging 288 yards per game.
*Fact of note: the Steelers are 4-1 against the spread in their last 5 games against the Bengals
The Play: Steelers -2
Here's what Scott Cooley at Book Maker Sportsbook thinks about the Steelers-Bengals matchup:
Steelers at Bengals (+3, 46.5)
Our team opened the spread Sunday evening at Steelers -3 (+100). The early bets came in on the Bengals and within a couple of hours we had adjusted the number to -2.5. On Tuesday afternoon, we saw a big sharp play on Pittsburgh, which pushed the line back to the opener of -3, and that's where we currently stand.
The game total opened at 46 and has moved a half point in either direction. It's currently on the low side at 45.5 but we expect a bump as the weekend bettors get down. This could conceivably close at 47.
The Steelers should see more action as kickoff draws near as well. We're not anticipating Andy Dalton being able to play so at the end of the day, it's Ben Roethlisberger vs. A.J. McCarron. Big Ben has been here, the backup has not.
45.5 total points (-110) ($10.00 wins $9.09)
In their Week 14 matchup, these two teams combined for 53 points. I think the rainy weather will make it easier for both defenses to create turnovers, which could turn the game into a shootout.
*Fact of note: The total has gone over in 4 of the Steelers last 6 games
The Play: over 45.5 points
Steelers will score over 24.5 points -115 ($10.00 wins $8.70)
Ben Roethlisberger over 39.5 pass attempts -120 ($10.00 wins $8.33)
The Long Shot
Fitzgerald Toussaint to score Steelers first touchdown +550 ($10.00 wins $55.00)
Steelers 38, Bengals 17