Pittsburgh Steelers (-3, 45.5 o/u) at Cincinnati Bengals
Apparently two regular season matchups wasn’t enough for the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6, 4-4 Away) and Cincinnati Bengals (12-4, 6-2 Home). After splitting their home-and-home series, the bitter rivals will meet for a third time this Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium (8:15 PM Eastern) with a spot in the AFC Divisional Playoffs on the line.
Each team won on the road during the regular season and the Steelers come into Wild Card weekend as a three-point favorite. In addition to their earlier win in Cincy, Pittsburgh comes in as a road-favorite due to the Bengals’ QB situation. The team is down to second-string pivot AJ McCarron, who has been at the helm since Andy Dalton was injured in the Week 14 loss to the Steelers.
The ex-Alabama star completed 22 of 32 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions in relief against Pittsburgh. McCarron went on to post a 2-1 record as the starter in the next three games (a 24-14 W at San Francisco, a 20-17 L at Denver, and a 24-16 W versus Baltimore). He tossed four majors and no picks over that span, but looked more like a game manager than a legitimate weapon, averaging just 184 passing yards per game.
That said, McCarron doesn’t lack for confidence, especially now that he’s getting practice time with the first-team offense. “Just from coming in from the Pitt game and then being in the San Fran game and how I started out especially against Denver, I felt like we were throwing it all over and we were really taking advantage of a lot of things, and capitalizing on them,” McCarron told the Cincinnati media. “I’ve said this from the beginning: It’s all about reps. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I am and the more chemistry we create as an offense.
The second-year QB will need to have the Cincy offense scoring at a high clip on Saturday. Pittsburgh closed the season averaging 31.5 points per game in its last eight outings and finished the year ranked sixth overall in scoring. The team may be without RB DeAngelo Williams on Saturday (foot), which is bad news for a squad that’s already missing All Pro back Le’Veon Bell; but, at the end of the day, it’s the passing game that makes the Steeler engine churn.
Even though QB Ben Roethlisberger missed a chunk of the season, Pittsburgh still finished sixth in the league in passing. The receiving trio of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton is arguably the best in the league and poses matchup problems for even the deepest secondaries.
There is some reason for concern in Pittsburgh, though. Roethlisberger wasn’t his usual, reliable self down the stretch, tossing six picks over the final three games of the year. Without Williams keeping the run game viable – and the Cincy defense honest – Big Ben will need to take much better care of the football come Saturday.
The Bengals were a great bet this year, going 12-3-1 ATS, overall. They’re also 5-0 ATS in their last five as a home dog. It’s hard to trust a first-time starter going against a two-time Super Bowl champ like Roethlisberger, but Cincy has the deeper roster and McCarron has shown enough to make the home dog the play.
Pick: Bengals +3.
(Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall (Flickr: Rey Maualuga) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)
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