Friday, December 26, 2014
Who I like, Cincinnati version
There's plenty at stake when the Steelers host the Bengals Sunday night at Heinz Field, first and foremost, a home playoff game.
That's significant, at least for the Steelers, who are 14-3 all-time in a home game to open the playoffs.
It would also be significant because the winner of this game is likely the third seed heading into the first round of the playoffs, which means it would avoid a second-round matchup with New England.
Given the way Denver has played over the past month - in particular, Peyton Manning - there's no question you'd rather have to play the Broncos over the Patriots in round two and then take your chances against New England in the AFC Championship.
The Steelers and Bengals met just three weeks ago, with Pittsburgh coming away with a 42-21 victory. But that game was much closer than the final score indicated, as Cincinnati scored to go ahead 21-17 on the final play of the third quarter before all hell broke loose.
The Steelers ended that game with more than 500 yards of total offense and completely destroyed the Bengals in the fourth quarter, scoring 25 unanswered points.
Cincinnati, however, has rebounded to win its past two games in convincing fashion, shutting out Cleveland and then beating Denver at home on Monday night.
But star receiver A.J. Green suffered an injury to his arm in that game and though he barely practiced this week, he'll play in this game.
The Bengals have been dealing with a number of illnesses, though, including one that forced quarterback Andy Dalton to be sent home early on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh ran the ball very well against Cincinnati, churning out 193 yards, 185 of which came from Le'Veon Bell, with much of it coming on the same play, a counter to the left that basically wiped out that entire side of the Bengals defense.
That has been the only 100-yard rushing game by a team in Cincinnati's past five games.
Can the Steelers do it again? We'll see. But Bell has been bottled up in each of the past two weeks.
Cincinnati also has discovered a running game of its own, meanwhile, using rookie Jeremy Hill. Hill has rushed for 148 and 147 yards in the past two games.
He has, however, fumbled three times in those two contests - Bell has fumbled once in his career.
The Steelers are 3 1/2-point favorites in this one and I like them to win and cover that spread, 27-17, setting up a first-round playoff game with . . . the San Diego Chargers, who will beat the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday to clinch the sixth, and final, playoff spot in the AFC and send Baltimore into its offeseason.