At least one playoff losing streak will end for an AFC North team in the second of two AFC wild-card round games on Saturday night when Pittsburgh visits Cincinnati for the third meeting between the two this season.
The Steelers (10-6) took the backdoor way into the playoffs as the AFC's final wild-card team. They needed the New York Jets to lose in Buffalo in Week 17 as 3-point favorites, and the Bills pulled the minor upset much to the delight of head coach Rex Ryan, who of course was fired by the Jets after last season. Pittsburgh took care of its business with a 28-12 win at sad-sack Cleveland. The Steelers have lost their past three playoff games, a streak that started with a loss in Super Bowl XLV to Green Bay. The last two were in this round. Pittsburgh goes to Denver next week with a victory here.
The Bengals (12-4) won the AFC North for the second time in three seasons and closed the regular season with a 24-16 home win over nothing-to-play for Baltimore. An overtime loss in Denver in Week 16 really hurt the Bengals because had they won that and all other things happened as they did in Week 17, Cincinnati would have been the AFC's top seed. Instead, it's a No. 3 and will head to New England next week with a win. The Bengals are in the postseason for a fifth straight season but have lost seven consecutive playoff games dating to 1990.
Pittsburgh is +450 at Bovada to win the AFC title and Cincinnati is +1000, ahead of only Houston (+2800).
Steelers at Bengals Betting Story Lines
It's very rare to see a coach dismissed after reaching the playoffs, but it happened last year when the Broncos flopped at home in a divisional-round upset loss to Indianapolis. Denver decided to boot John Fox, who landed in Chicago. I could see the Bengals parting ways with Marvin Lewis if they lose this game, especially if it's not close. Lewis has been incredibly successful with a 112-94-2 regular-season record with Cincinnati but is 0-6 in the playoffs. The Bengals didn't play well at all in the previous four years.
Their quarterback in those past four losses, which all came in this round (three on the road), was Andy Dalton. He was having his best season in 2015 but lost to a broken thumb on his throwing hand in Week 14 against the Steelers. Dalton had his cast removed on Monday, but it would be a minor miracle for him to play. He hasn't practiced as of this writing. Could he at least back up A.J. McCarron? That's still up in the air. McCarron has played pretty well in Dalton's place, going 2-1 as a starter, the first two wins by an NFL starting quarterback from the University of Alabama since 1987. He has passed for 854 yards (66.4 percent completions) and six touchdowns with two picks overall this season. McCarron hurt his wrist in that OT loss to Denver in Week 16 but was able to play through it this past Sunday and is good to go. Cincinnati also got good injury news in Week 17 with the return of star tight end Tyler Eifert. He had four catches for 51 yards and a TD in the win over Baltimore after missing two games. Eifert finished with 13 TDs on the season, tops among tight ends and one shy of the NFL lead overall. He will be a big part of the game plan Saturday night.
The Steelers really have to stop playing their top running backs in Week 17. Unfortunately, they have had to. Last year, the Steelers beat these Bengals 27-17 in the regular-season finale to win the AFC North. Alas, the Steelers also lost star running back Le'Veon Bell to a knee injury that cost him the playoff opener. And Pittsburgh wasn't the same without him in losing at home to Baltimore. This past Sunday, the Steelers obviously couldn't rest guys as they had to win to get in. But DeAngelo Williams, the featured back with Bell out for the season, suffered an ankle injury and is very much in question for Saturday. Williams led the team with 200 carries for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. If he can't play, Fitzgerald Toussaint will be the No. 1 back with Jordan Todman at No. 2. Toussaint filled in for Williams after he was injured in Week 17 and finished the game with 24 yards on 12 carries. The former Michigan player spent most of the season on the practice squad.
Thus, I expect the Steelers to be quite one dimensional on Saturday with Ben Roethlisberger in the passing game. And he does have the AFC's best trio of receivers in Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Brown is simply amazing for his size and tied for the league lead in receptions with 136 while adding 1,871 yards (second in NFL) and 10 TDs. Think of what he might have done if Big Ben didn't miss four games.
The teams split in the regular season, each winning on the road. Cincinnati did win 16-10 in Week 8, the game Bell was lost for the season. Pittsburgh won 33-20 in Week 14, the game in which Dalton broke his thumb early. McCarron finished 22-for-32 for 280 yards, two TDs and two picks.
Steelers at Bengals Betting Odds and Trends
At 5Dimes , Pittsburgh is a 2.5-point favorite (-120) with a total of 45.5. On the moneyline, the Steelers are -145 and the Bengals +125. There are no alternate lines yet, no doubt because of the injury questions.
The Steelers are 9-6-1 against the spread (5-3 on road) and 6-10 "over/under" (2-6 on road). The Bengals are 12-3-1 ATS (4-3-1 at home) and 7-9 O/U (3-5 at home). Pittsburgh is 12-4 ATS in its past 16 vs. teams with a winning record. Cincinnati is 7-0 ATS in its past seven at home vs. teams with a winning road record. The Bengals are 1-10 ATS in their past 11 January games. They are 0-6 ATS in their past six playoff games. The under is 6-1-1 in Pittsburgh's past eight inside the division. The under is 5-1 in Cincinnati's past six following a win.
NFL Expert Picks Against the Spread: Steelers at Bengals Betting Predictions
This is tough to call. If both teams were fully healthy, I'd probably take Cincinnati. Big Ben has been turnover-prone of late with three straight games of at least two picks. But you still take him over McCarron any day of the week. That said, Cincinnati's defense ranked second in the NFL in allowing 17.4 points, and the Bengals have the clear advantage on that side of the ball, at running back and on the offensive line. A.J. Green is no slouch at receiver. But McCarron...
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin holds a 13-5 advantage in games against Lewis, with Pittsburgh winning four of the last five. Still, I just don't know. Even if Williams plays, he's going to be gimpy. It's also supposed to be rainy Saturday night. That would seem to benefit the Bengals because it's harder to throw in the rain. I'm sure there will be an alternate line of 3.5 points eventually. Take those points. Go under -- probably prefer that over the side.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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