December 7,2014 Sunday, 2:00
7/5 Pittsburgh Steelers Odds to Win
AFC North has been the most competitive division in the NFL this season, but the first-place Cincinnati Bengals finally gained some breathing room last week, as they were the only team in the division to score a victory. This week, the Bengals square off against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in a contest that could go a long way in determining the outcome of the division. Cincinnati boasts an 8-3-1 mark, while the Steelers enter with a record of 7-5. Last week, Cincinnati barely escaped with a victory against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 14-13. Despite the scare, the Bengals have managed to win five of their past six contests. Conversely, the Steelers suffered a lopsided defeat to another NFC South opponent, the New Orleans Saints. The 35-32 final margin in favor of the Saints was not indicative, as New Orleans thoroughly outplayed Pittsburgh, and the Steelers tacked on two late touchdowns with the outcome already decided. Pittsburgh’s campaign has been marred by inconsistency, as the their impressive victories have been offset by losses to mediocre opponents, including the aforementioned Buccaneers. For the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton struggled last week, as he threw three interceptions and failed to crack the 200-yard plateau. While he accounted for both touchdowns, including the go-ahead strike to A.J. Green, Dalton has been up and down all season. Cincinnati’s rushing attack has been much more consistent, as the duo of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill have split carries and combined to produce more than 1,200 yards so far. That combination has allowed the Bengals to boast the ninth-best rushing attack in the league. Although the rushing game has been a bigger weapon for Cincinnati this season, the Steelers’ defense could be susceptible to big plays via the passing game, as well. Against the Saints, Drew Brees torched the Steelers’ secondary for five touchdowns. Returning Steelers’ cornerback Ike Taylor looked uncomfortable and out of sync, as Kenny Stills accounted for 162 yards receiving. Taylor was once a shutdown corner for Pittsburgh, but his decline and the struggles of Cortez Allen could allow for Green to have a monster performance. After battling injuries early this year, Green is finally healthy, and has totaled more than 300 yards over the past three contests. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers offense has been one of the best, ranking fourth and 11th in passing and rushing yards, respectively. Although he passed for 435 yards in the defeat on Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger misfired on a number of throws. Roethlisberger appeared to be favoring his hand for awhile, which could explain the errant throws and two interceptions. Overall this campaign, he’s been terrific, ranking in the top six for signalcallers in both yards and touchdowns. Roethlisberger is far from the only weapon for Pittsburgh, though, as Le’Veon Bell continues his terrific sophomore season. Bell has rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and has also hauled in 65 passes. With the recent release of LeGarrette Blount, Bell is the unquestioned workhorse, and Pittsburgh will need him to be at his best against a Bengals’ defense that has been poor against the run. Cincinnati’s defense has been plagued by injuries, and cornerback Adam Jones is the latest impact player to land on the injury report. Jones has been placed under concussion protocol, which leaves his availability in doubt. Similarly, Bengals’ standout linebacker Vontaze Burfict will likely miss Sunday’s tilt. Cincinnati’s pass rush has struggled this year, with only Carlos Dunlap able to get to the quarterback with regularity. Moreover, former defensive player of the year candidate Geno Atkins bears little resemblance to the disruptive force that accumulated 12.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position in 2012. If the Bengals allow Roethlisberger to stand in the pocket, he has the accuracy and requisite targets to pick apart the Cincinnati secondary. Although both teams should be geared up for the stretch run, there’s no doubt that the Steelers should be the more desperate team. The Steelers, who followed up three dominant performances with three disappointing efforts, must win to maintain their playoff hopes. With the season on the line, it’s hard to bet against Roethlisberger, a two time Super Bowl Champion. The Steelers will rely on their offensive to pull off the road upset, and in the process, make the AFC North playoff picture even more convoluted.