It's rare to see a pair of NFL rivals face each other three times in one calendar year, but that will be case when the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers face off for a third time.
The two AFC North foes sport one of pro sport's best rivalries, and now we get to see that play out in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs. Though the Steelers have won nine of the past 12 matchups, Cincinnati did win in Pittsburgh earlier this season en route to claiming the AFC North.
That was a 16-10 defensive slugfest that saw Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes while the defense forced two fourth-quarter interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger to pull off the win.
The Steelers would return the favor in Week 14 with a 33-20 win that saw Dalton go down with a broken thumb and AJ McCarron emerge. Since then, McCarron has completed 76 of 115 (66.1%) passes for 832 yards with six touchdowns, two interceptions and a 97.4 passer rating.
But if you count that game with McCarron's three ensuing starts, he's led the Bengals' offense to score an average of 21.3 points per game, down nearly a touchdown from the 27.8 points they were averaging with Dalton under center. While McCarron has played admirably, he simply isn't playing at the level Dalton was before his injury.
That's a big reason why the Bengals are home underdogs this week to a Steelers team that won six of their final eight games to get into the postseason. The Steelers opened the game as a 1-point favorite, but the line has since grown to 3 points, according to OddsShark.
It's worth noting that every home team in the Wild Card round is an underdog, so Cincy shouldn't feel too disrespected. Here's a look at some of the recent betting trends for these two teams, which show Cincinnati has been a good bet this season, but Pittsburgh is typically the safer pick when these two rivals face off.
- Cincinnati is 12-3-1 ATS in its last 16 games
- Cincinnati is 12-4 SU in its last 16 games
- The total has gone UNDER in 7 of Cincinnati's last 10 games
- Cincinnati is 2-3-1 ATS in its last 6 games at home
- Cincinnati is 7-2 SU in its last 9 games at home
- Cincinnati is 1-4 SU in its last 5 games when playing Pittsburgh
- The total has gone UNDER in 6 of Cincinnati's last 9 games when playing Pittsburgh
- Cincinnati is 2-12-1 ATS in its last 15 games when playing at home against Pittsburgh
- Pittsburgh is 4-1 SU in its last 5 games
- The total has gone OVER in 4 of Pittsburgh's last 6 games
- The total has gone UNDER in 7 of Pittsburgh's last 9 games on the road
- Pittsburgh is 5-1 ATS in its last 6 games when playing on the road against Cincinnati
- Pittsburgh is 13-2 SU in its last 15 games when playing on the road against Cincinnati
As for how the experts see this game playing out, it's pretty split among the talking heads as to who will win this matchup. Microsoft Cortana, the virtual assistant that picks the outright winner of every NFL game and finished the regular season with a record of 161-95 (63 percent), gives the Bengals a 53-percent chance of beating the Steelers.
NFL.com's Elliot Harrison sees this being a tight contest that comes down to the wire and could easily go either way, but doesn't think the Bengals having to go with McCarron over Dalton would be why they lose a 23-22 contest.
How people are so quick to dismiss AJ McCarron is a bit weird. He has performed viably in his three starts, winning two. Sure, the two victories came against the 49ers and Ravens, but what's the guy supposed to do -- lobby the schedule makers to abruptly switch things up so he can play the Patriots and Seahawks and prove his worth? Come on. Sure, the two interceptions during the loss to Pittsburgh in Week 14 hurt. You try playing a division rival after you get, oh, maybe five percent of the snaps in practice that week. For the record, I think a relatively healthy DeAngelo Williams would spell a win for Pittsburgh, but not because McCarron wets himself in a big game. If no Williams, it's Fitzgerald Toussaint's baby. And if that's the case, I'm less confident in the pick here. I mean, look, I have it as a one-point game as is ...
The one-point thriller theme continues with CBS Sports' Pete Prisco, but he sees the Bengals as the ones pulling off the close win.
The Bengals will be without Andy Dalton for another week, which means A.J. McCarron will make his fourth start and first playoff start.
The Steelers can roll up big numbers on offense, and that passing game can be lethal. But they can't stop anybody's passing game. Look for A.J. Green to have a good day and help McCarron have a solid passing performance.
The Bengals will finally win a playoff game under Marvin Lewis, and it will come without Dalton.
The Pick: Bengals 21, Steelers 20
Here's a look at how all of the national experts are picking this game:
- Four of eight experts at SB Nation are going with the Bengals.
- The Bengals received one out of a possible nine picks at ESPN as of Thursday morning with six picks yet to be made.
- Three of eight Fox Sports pickers went with Cincy.
- Three of eight CBS Sports pickers are siding with the Bengals.
- Bleacher Report's eight-man crew has three picks for the Bengals and five for the Steelers.
- NFL Pick Watch, which keeps track of every expert pick, has the Steelers getting 66-percent of the picks this week.
It's safe to say the Bengals are the clear underdog here, but not enough so that it would be a major upset if Cincinnati won. Pittsburgh has been very erratic this season and may be without star running back DeAngelo Williams this week. He gashed the Bengals for 201 total yards and two scores in two games vs the Bengals this season and was a major part of the Steelers' offense.
Still, it's hard to see a very green McCarron winning a duel with a grizzled vet in Roethlisberger, not to mention a Bengals team with just one player who has won playoff games (A.J. Hawk with Packers) vs a Steelers team full of key players who were part of their last Super Bowl appearance in 2011.
My prediction: I see this game coming down to the fourth quarter as both teams trade blows, but the Steelers' experience and offensive firepower prove too much for the Bengals to overcome.
Final Score: Steelers 30, Bengals 23
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