Steelers vs. Bengals NFL Picks: Bet Pittsburgh ATS On Saturday

Sterling Xie

Thursday, January 7, 2016 9:42 PM UTC

Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 9:42 PM UTC

In the rubber match of this heated AFC North clash, the Pittsburgh Steelers look like a strong bet to extend the Cincinnati Bengals' postseason misery and beat the NFL odds.

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NFL Pick: Steelers -3
Best Line Offered: at Heritage


The Pittsburgh Steelers only qualified for the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, but now that they are in the dance, there might not be a more dangerous team in the AFC.  Pittsburgh is currently a three-point favorite after opening at -2.5 over the Cincinnati Bengals, who looked like strong contenders to earn a first-round bye for much of the season before late-season injuries sent Cincy down the standings.

Now, the Bengals will need to snap their seven-game postseason losing streak without Andy Dalton under center.  The Bengals quarterback does not appear ready to return from the broken thumb he sustained against Pittsburgh four weeks ago.  Consequently, Cincinnati will go with AJ McCarron, the second-year quarterback who played almost all of that 33-20 defeat for the Bengals.

Granted, it's not fair to assume Pittsburgh will again roll over Cincy at Paul Brown Stadium.  McCarron was inserted without a game plan tailored to his playing style, and without having taken reps with the Bengals' first-team offense.  In three starts since then, McCarron has played a controlled game, throwing four touchdowns to no interceptions and averaging a respectable 6.7 yards per attempt.  If you'd rather look at advanced metrics instead of standard passing stats, McCarron has posted a 6.9% passing DVOA, Football Outsiders' metric for per-play efficiency.  That figure suggests McCarron has been a better than average passer this season, and would place him in the same neighborhood as Derek Carr and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

However, there are reasons to believe the McCarron-led Bengals offense will struggle to score in a game where they will likely need to keep up with Ben Roethlisberger and Co.  For one, McCarron's avoidance of catastrophic has come with a steep invoice.   The Bengals offense, which averaged 27.8 points per game and 5.9 yards per play with Dalton at the helm, has seen those totals dip to 21.3 points per game and 4.9 yards per play. 

More problematically, it is unlikely offensive coordinator Hue Jackson can call on the backfield tandem of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to carry the Cincinnati Bengals in this particular matchup.  Pittsburgh has an elite run-stuffing front seven, ranking sixth in yards allowed per rush attempt (3.8) and fifth in run defense DVOA.  In two games against Cincy this year, the Steelers conceded just 142 rushing yards on 39 carries, good for 3.6 yards per carry.

There is a strong chance this AFC North game turns into an arms race between McCarron and Roethlisberger, a chance Pittsburgh will happily take.  The Steelers may not have starting tailback DeAngelo Williams available due to a sprained ankle Williams suffered in Week 17.  Even if Williams does play, he will be severely physically limited, likely leaving the majority of the carries to Fitzgerald Toussaint or Jordan Todman. 

Nevertheless, the Steelers have been a strong bet when favored this season, the byproduct of their explosive passing game which remains fully intact.  Pittsburgh is 6-3 ATS when favored, including a 4-1 record down the stretch when Roethlisberger returned from a mid-foot sprain.  Apart from a Week 16 dud at Baltimore, a game that looks like an outlier for this team, the Steelers have represented a team bettors can depend on to produce prolific totals on a weekly basis, allowing them to cover routinely.

We don't have enough of a sample size to determine if the McCarron-led Bengals are worthy bets when listed as underdogs.  Cincinnati was favored over the cellar-dwelling 49ers and Ravens, and pushed as three-point dogs on the NFL odds board at Denver in Week 16.  Thus, we need to rely on how the personnel matches up on paper between the two squads.

And in that regard, the Steelers hold a distinct advantage.  A.J. Green will likely be good for a couple big plays, and stars like Geno Atkins and Reggie Nelson are capable of ending a few Pittsburgh drives.  However, unless the offense can unexpectedly sustain drives without a consistent running game, the Steelers should eventually control time of possession and wear out the Bengals.  The star-crossed Bengals deserved a healthy season from Dalton, but without a quarterback who was performing at an MVP-level prior to getting hurt, Cincinnati's playoff futility is a strong bet to continue for our NFL picks.

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