The second of the two AFC wildcard games is a huge AFC North clash pitting the Pittsburgh Steelers against the division winning Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (8:15pm ET Saturday live on TV: CBS).
Despite dropping its opener to the defending champion New England Patriots, the Steelers played well to get wins in their next two. The team looked poised to contend for the AFC North title yet again but that was before an injury to Ben Roethlisberger occurred midway through a game against the Baltimore Ravens in week four. While the Steelers managed to go .500 in the four games Roethlisberger missed, it had been enough for the team to fall behind the then undefeated Bengals.
Roethlisberger returned to start the Steelers’ week eight loss against those very Bengals, but the Steelers didn’t look back after that. The team finished the season winners of six of their last eight. Needing some things to fall into place however, Pittsburgh watched as the Buffalo Bills defeated the New York Jets, thus meaning they had punched their ticket into the postseason as the sixth and final team.
Meanwhile, the Bengals sputtered to the finish line. After opening the season as one of the NFL’s four undefeated teams, Cincinnati carried that streak all the way through week eight. It was a week nine loss against fellow playoff team, the Houston Texans that finally ended both the streak and the best start in Bengals history.
This loss prompted a 4-4 record for the Bengals in the last half of the season. Fortunately enough for them, the 8-0 start had built a big enough lead over Pittsburgh that the division was never in question. In fact, Cincinnati was one of the first teams to clinch their spot in the postseason.
Here are some storylines to follow in advance of our preview’s betting picks and predictions for Saturday’s game.
Cincinnati Can’t Win in the Playoffs. No, really, they can’t.
In 1991, behind 4x Pro Bowl QB and one-time NFL MVP, Boomer Esiason, the Bengals jumped off to a 20-0 lead against the Houston Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. Esiason and company led the Bengals to score 41 points and accomplish their most lopsided playoff defeat in franchise history. As it turns out, this was also the last playoff victory in franchise history.
Following the ’91 season the Bengals lived in futility, posting a streak of 14 consecutive non-winning seasons. Under new leadership, the team did manage to turn things around and went on a new streak by making each of the past six postseasons. However, the Bengals have lost in the wild card round each of those seven times.
Cincinnati has one of the worst playoff records and is the only team over the past 10 years to make at least seven postseason appearances and lose every single one of them.
A lot of this criticism has gone to QB Andy Dalton, who may not even play in Saturday’s game due to an injury he sustained before the end of the season. As of this writing, it appears likely that Dalton won’t go, meaning once again the spotlight and the stage belongs to former college football champion from Alabama, AJ McCarron. McCarron has not been bad per se in his limited appearances in this his rookie year, but he has been unspectacular. While Dalton does carry with him that dubious loss record in the playoffs, it is a safe bet that he is the guy Bengals’ fans would prefer to see. Not to mention, before the injury, Dalton was actually in the midst of one of the best years of his career.
While Dalton’s absence may prove daunting it would be wise to remember that McCarron was Mr Saturday Night while at Alabama. He always came up big in the big games, making the needed plays and controlling the tempo and offensive scheme. He was at his best in high pressure situations and at least at the collegiate level, no stage proved too big.
Against the Steelers, the task is going to be a little more difficult than the competition he faced in college. That said, McCarron seems up to the challenge and the Steelers defense is not as threatening as it has been in years’ past. While perhaps not the best option to tote out there in a playoff game that will either continue to define this franchise or allow them to step out from their past, McCarron is certainly not the worst. He has excellent weapons and has shown big game mentality in spurts this year. At home, he could play a huge impact in whether the Bengals win or lose.
Is there any Stopping Antonio Brown?
Like every other team on Pittsburgh’s schedule this year, Cincinnati has to ask itself if Antonio Brown (pictured), the NFL’s top receiver in 2015, can be stopped. If he can’t, which very few teams have managed, then it’s up to the Bengals to get pressure on the QB and make things difficult for Roethlisberger. The Steelers are expected to be without Deangelo Williams and this is a big blow, not just to the running game but to the dual threat offense Pittsburgh runs.
Without an established running game, the question becomes, “How effective can Brown be?” Unfortunately for the Bengals, that answer is very effective. In fact, the only factor that kept Brown down this year was when it came to Roethlisberger’s injury. This was the only time all season the top receiver failed to catch more than five passes in consecutive games and failed to top the 60 yard mark.
While Brown ended the season with 187 receiving yards and 189 two weeks prior, there is a good sign for the Bengals. In two games this season, Cincinnati held Brown to just 127 total yards. They not only have the personnel to affect Brown in some way but they also have the experience. This will be the third opportunity they have of going against Brown and they are no doubt going to be aided by that fact.
Our Preview’s Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cincinnati Bengals Betting Picks Predictions
This is probably one of the better Bengals teams to enter the postseason and the one most likely to end the streak. But they are without their top QB and they are facing a Pittsburgh team they are just 2-13 against in their last 15 at home. The Steelers have been one of the best offensive teams toward the end of the season, scoring over 31.2 points per game. Not to mention, they are 11-3 ATS in their last 14 games in the month of January.
- The trends are clear here and they point to the Steelers. Our preview’s betting pick is to take Pittsburgh to cover the -3 point spread @ best betting odds of -105 with 5Dimes Sportsbook. It is currently -110 odds for the same spread with Bovada and BetOnline.
- Given the yellow and black are 14-3 on matching the over in their last 17 January games and 8-1 in their last nine playoff games, the over 45.5 total game points is the safe prediction here as well. Bet over 45.5pts with BetOnline or 5Dimes sportsbooks @ odds of -110. It is -115 with Bovada.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.