Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5 SU, 8-5 ATS) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1 SU, 5-8 ATS)
Week 15 NFL
Date/Time: Sunday, December 18, 2016 at 1PM EST
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
By Loot, NFL Football Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Betting Odds: PIT -3/CIN +3
Over/Under Total: 44.5
The Pittsburgh Steelers come into Paul Brown Stadium to face the Cincinnati Bengals in week 15 AFC North action. Both teams won on Sunday, as the Steelers beat the Bills, 27-20, while the Bengals topped the Browns, 23-10. It was the Bengals second win in a row after they opened the season with just 3 wins in their first 11 games. While this season got completely sideways for the perennial playoff team, the Bengals are in there trying and we've seen their efforts begin to pay off in the past few weeks. For the Steelers, their win over Buffalo was their 4th straight win—just the right medicine for a team that was on the heels of a 4-game losing streak that threatened to sidetrack their season. The Steelers are now in control of their own fate at 8-5.
The Steelers got a huge performance from Le'Veon Bell on Sunday, as the Steelers back set a franchise record with 236 yards on the ground. He also ran in three touchdowns. Bell has been huge this season. Despite missing the first two games, he's over 1000 on the ground with 563 yards aerially. He's been big in the last 4 games with 620 yards on the ground with big production as a short pass option for Ben Roethlisberger. The explosion in form for Bell has saved the season for the Steelers. While Roethlisberger is still a handful and Antonio Brown is among the best receivers in the game, the aerial attack hasn't been clicking for the Steelers. Injuries and inconsistent play have cost them some depth aerially. But getting tight end Ladarius Green back in the mix has really paid off in the past several weeks. All of Brown's supporting cast is either sidelined with injury or suspension, or has been so inconsistent that you just can't depend on them from week-to-week.
In addition to the Steelers getting a big boost from the ground-game, the Steelers have relied on defense more in recent weeks. A defense that looked to make measurable gains last season was sabotaged by injuries and youthful mistakes this season. But in this latest 4-game stretch, the Steelers have allowed just a combined 50 points. The pass-rush has been more consistent, while the front has also been adept in stopping the opposing run-game. Even with some stretches where they weren't very good, they're still allowing under 20 points per game.
The real challenge for the Steelers was that they have been forced to transform their identity to some extent. Again, the lack of consistently in the passing-game has been startling. Receivers with big games will disappear the following week. At times, guys like Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates look like world-beaters, only to vanish for weeks on end. Key role guys like Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, DeAngelo Williams, and Martavis Bryant are unavailable. It has made the pass-game less multi-dimensional, as Pittsburgh has been forced to be a more-balanced offense, depending more on defense than what they suspected they would have to. It says a lot about a team that is able to find a different way to win.
The season has been a bitter pill to swallow for the Bengals, following a stretch of five straight playoff appearances. Without AJ Green, they have been able to soldier on and win two straight, with the defense resembling the old Cincy "D" following a prolonged stretch of games when that side of the ball had lost their way. Granted, beating the Eagles at home and the winless Browns on the road is hardly cause for celebration, but when you're 3-7-1, you'll take progress however it comes.
The Bengals' offense has been decent despite missing their most-compelling offensive player in AJ Green. Quarterback Andy Dalton has been more efficient lately, playing pretty well in the past two weeks and putting the ball on a dime. Aerially, Tyler Boyd has been showing improvement as a rookie and TE Tyler Eifert is slowly getting back into the swing of things. Brandon LaFell has had some good games, with RB Jeremy Hill making a lot of key catches. Hill ran for 111 yards on Sunday and has eight touchdowns on the season. Still, it hurts to not have Green or versatile back Giovani Bernard in the mix. A lot of kudos should go to Dalton for finding a way to make this work without some of his key playmakers, along with a line that has been battered and hasn't given him much protection this season.
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Cincinnati's long run of success, their lack of playoff wins notwithstanding, was largely based on defense. And this season, the defense was off the mark—a bottom half group that wasn't clutch and that didn't make many plays. The line seemed to deteriorate this season, particularly against the run. The secondary, with Pacman Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, George Iloka, and Shawn Williams have been able to make plays. Iloka and Kirkpatrick each have three picks, But the line, hurt by injuries, age, and inconsistent play, have cost this defense its balance and its overall bite. Still, in the last four games, they've only allowed 59 combined points.
After all these teams have been through, it's debatable how much their week two game even matters at this point. The Steelers won at home, 19-14. Dalton aired it out to the tune of 366 yards, but Bernard and Green are no longer in the fold. Pittsburgh was without Bell, with Sammie Coates leading the way in receiving. Neither team is the same. The Steelers are playing with enhanced urgency, looking to win the division with their wild card hopes being far iffier. I see the Steelers scoring the tough road win and getting the cover.
Loot's Prediction to Cover the Point Spread: I'm betting on the Pittsburgh Steelers minus 3 points. Tired of your credit card not working for sportsbook deposit? End that problem today and bet the Steelers vs. Bengals game by signing up at Bovada Sportsbook where your credit card WILL work and where you'll receive a generous 100% sign-up bonus!