Pittsburgh (10-6) at Cincinnati (12-4)
When: Saturday, January 9th 2016
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
Time: 8:15 ET | TV: CBS
Two bitter rivals meet Saturday night in Cincinnati as the Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the NFL Playoffs. These teams split the two regular season games with each winning on the road. Pittsburgh finished the season strong as their offense got healthy and started to click again. The Steelers won six of their last eight games and scored 28 or more points in seven of those games. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 3,938 yards and 21 touchdowns despite missing four and a half games with a knee injury. He did throw 16 interceptions – 2nd most in his career – and six of those came in the last three weeks. When you throw the ball almost 40 times a game, you’re bound to have a few picks. Antonio Brown had a career-high 136 receptions, 1,834 yards, and 10 touchdowns including 187 yards on 13 catches against the Browns last week. Martavis Bryant, who missed the first five games and only caught two passes in the last two weeks, still had 50 catches for 765 yards. Marcus Wheaton caught another 44 for 749 yards while only starting eight games. The big concern coming into this game is the health of backup running back DeAngelo Williams. He has filled in nicely since Le’Veon Bell was lost for the season. Williams injured his ankle last week and is listed as questionable for Saturday. Head coach Mike Tomlin reportedly is considering Fitzgerald Toussaint (42 yards) and journeyman Jordan Todman (22 yards) in the gameplan. The Steelers were third in the league with 48 sacks and ranked 5th in rushing defense allowing just 91.2 yards a game on the ground.
The Bengals started out 8-0 before a Monday night loss to Houston in Week 10. Quarterback Andy Dalton was having a career year (25 TDs, 7 INT) before injuring his thumb making a tackle against the Steelers in Week 14. He is listed as doubtful and the Bengals hope he can be back next week if they advance. A.J. McCarron started the last three games and did an admirable job. He threw six touchdowns and just two interceptions – both coming against Pittsburgh. He completed 66.4% of his passes and his QB rating was a respectable 97.1. Running back Jeremy Hill overcame a sluggish start to score six touchdowns in his last seven games, but he was limited to just 76 yards on 22 carries combined in the two meetings with Pittsburgh this season. Wide receiver A.J. Green caught a season-high 11 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati’s 16-10 win over Pittsburgh on November 1st and added six catches for 132 yards and a score in the latter meeting. Green led the team in receptions and yards, but it was tight end Tyler Eifert who found the end zone more. Eifert missed two games late in the season with a concussion, but came back in Week 17 to catch 4 passes including his team-leading 13th touchdown. The defense was very good against the run, but struggled against the pass, which could be worrisome against Pittsburgh. S Reggie Nelson finished tied with Kansas City rookie Marcus Peters for the league lead with eight interceptions.
Momentum and confidence are big going into the Playoffs and the Steelers have both. All four of the Bengals losses were against playoff teams. They did beat Seattle and Kansas City early in the year, but both of those teams were below .500 at the time and not looking good. Roethlisberger should have another huge day and I expect the Steelers to advance in Cincinnati like they did 10 years ago en route to a Super Bowl victory.
Pick: Steelers -3