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Cincinnati Bengals (10-4-1 SU, 8-6-1 ATS) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5 SU, 8-7 ATS)
NFL Week 17
Date and Time: Sunday, December 28, 2014, 8:25 pm EST
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
by Badger, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: CIN. +3.5/PIT. -3.5
Over/Under Total: 48
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The AFC North division title and home field position in the playoffs will be up for grabs on Sunday, when the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their rivalry in the NFLs final regular season game of the 2014 season at Heinz Field on NBCs Sunday Night Football in America.
Depending on what happens in the Raiders-Broncos game earlier in the afternoon in Denver, the Bengals and Steelers could be playing for anything from the AFCs No. 2 seed and an automatic first round bye, all the way down to the 5th seed and a road game in the wild card playoffs next weekend. A Denver loss combined with a Bengals win would bounce Cincinnati up to the No. 2 seed, while the best the Steelers could do with a win would be to secure the AFCs No. 3 seed and a game hosting the final wildcard winner in next weekends AFC playoff action.
What all of this ultimately means is that both the Bengals and Steelers will need to pull out all of the stops on Sunday night, so no resting of key players or tanking the final few quarters of action will be debated by either coaching staffs for this one. These rivals will have to put it all on the line the way it should be in week 17 action.
Pittsburgh has gotten to the point of playing for the AFC North title by winning three in a row including a solid, 20-12, victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend on Heinz Field.
But the Bengals are also playing some of the best football in the league down the stretch, winning five of their last six games including an impressive must-win victory over the aforementioned Broncos at home last week on Monday Night Football, 37-28. The win secured Cincinnatis spot in the playoffs, and also opened the door for a possible first round playoff bye if they can find a way to get past the Steelers on the road this weekend in the finale.
With so much riding on this game, its sort of a minor surprise to see the Steelers opening up as 3.5-point favorites at home for this game. Normally I would expect the oddsmakers in Las Vegas to set the opening point spread with the home team as the standard 3-point favorites and let the market dictate which direction to move the hook, but in this case the power to be decided right off the bat to install the extra half-point on the side of Pittsburgh for Sunday.
The over/under total opened at 48 and has already moved the hook in both directions to 47.5 or 48.5, depending on where you look and where you choose to book your wagers.
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By the time week 17 rolls around there really arent too many surprises that havent been handicapped to death already. Both of these two teams will try and establish the running games early with young and explosive running backs in LeVeon Bell and Jeremy Hill, but the wildcard in all of this could be the passing attack of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Big Ben has grown to enjoy the quick, spread the field style of coordinator Todd Haley and it has produced strong results as the Steelers are 301 yards per game (2nd in NFL). Pittsburgh would have an edge in the receiver core, but Cincinnati is probably the one team in the AFC that can match the likes of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton with corners Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick.
I would normally say there could be an opportunity for the Bengals to take advantage of a weakened and aging Steelers secondary in the passing game (allowing 256 ypg 28th), but the fact that QB Andy Dalton seems to be off his game a little lately and star wideout A.J. Green hurt his elbow in the Broncos game and is not likely to be 100 percent makes me rethink that proposition.
Three short weeks ago the Steelers went on the road in Cincinnati and handed the Bengals their only loss since early November, 42-21. In that game it was back-and-forth all the way until midway through the fourth quarter when the Steelers broke the game open with a huge 94-yard TD strike from Roethlisberger to Bryant. The Bengals also had a hard time stopping Bell and the Steelers running game (Bell had 185 yards and 2 TD), whereas the Steelers held Hill (only 46 yards) and the Cincinnati running attack to just 86 yards and took advantage of two Bengals fumbles in the game.
Historically, the road team in this rivalry has had the upper hand at the window, going 17-8-1 ATS over the last 26 games. But those numbers have not been the Bengals of late, since they are just 2-5 ATS in their last seven visits to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Traditionally, these teams play hard rivalry football too, because the under is 4-1 in their last five meetings played in Pittsburgh and the under is also 5-0 in the Bengals last five road games overall.
Badgers Pick to Cover the Point Spread:Always hard to pick a side in these rivalry games where so much is riding on the outcome. I cant help but expect a slight letdown out of the Bengals after expending so much physical and emotional energy beating the Broncos at home last week. But ultimately I think the wildcard in this game will be the health of A.J. Green. With Green at full strength the Steelers secondary didnt have an answer for him (224 yards and a TD) in their first meeting, but with him struggling with a sore elbow, it could make potential one-on-one matchups with him winnable on the outside, allowing the Steelers to commit more towards stopping Hill and the running game. I dont like the extra half point on the current line, but if forced to pick a side, Id have to go with the Steelers at home minus the points. If it drops to just minus -3, then Id jump all over the Steelers at that point. Im taking Pittsburgh minus the points, in a game I dont think gets over the total of 48.