Considering it was chosen as the final “Sunday Night Football” contest of 2014, the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (10-4-1) might be the most important on the Week 17 schedule. The two teams are set to meet at Heinz Field with the AFC North title on the line.
The best Pittsburgh can hope for is the No.3 seed, which they would claim with a victory over Cincinnati. The Denver Broncos own the tiebreaker between the two teams and the Steelers can’t get a bye, but their Week 9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts gives them the tiebreaker over Andrew Luck and Co. If Pittsburgh loses, they’ll get a wild-card spot and the No.5 seed.
Cincinnati still has a chance to get the No.2 seed and a first-round bye, following their win on Monday night over the Broncos. The Bengals automatically advance to the second round if they beat the Steelers and the Broncos lose to the Oakland Raiders. Like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati gets the No.5 seed with a loss.
Since Week 11, the Bengals have been one of the hottest teams in football. They have five wins during that time, including a victory over the Broncos and four wins on the road. However, their one misstep in the last six games is the reason why Cincinnati hasn’t clinched the division.
The Steelers doubled up the Bengals in Week 14, 42-21, handing them their second home loss of the season. Cincinnati actually took a lead into the fourth quarter, but Pittsburgh finished the game by scoring 25 unanswered points. Le’Veon Bell led the way, rushing for 185 yards and two scores, while catching six passes for 50 yards and another touchdown.
Limiting Bell and the Pittsburgh rushing attack will be key for Cincinnati. The Bengals rank 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game (122.1), and they’ve surrendered at least 170 yards on the ground in each of their losses. In their first loss of the season, Cincinnati let the New England Patriots run for 220 yards.
Jeremy Hill has seen his number of carries continue to increase, which has led to more Cincinnati wins. The rookie has rushed for 148 yards and 147 yards in his last two games, respectively. The Bengals are 7-0 when Hill gets at least 13 carries.
While Andy Dalton has struggled in 2014, ranking just 24th in passer rating, Ben Roethlisberger has had one of the best seasons of his career. He ranks third in passer rating (103.8) and completion percentage (67.4), and second in passing yards (4,635). The quarterback hasn’t thrown an interception in his last three games.
The Steelers have been upset a few times this season, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets, but they’ve raised their level of play against elite competition. Pittsburgh is 7-1 against teams that have clinched a postseason berth or remain in playoff contention. Cincinnati is 5-3-1 against such teams.
Pittsburgh is favored by three points and the over/under is 48 points. The Steelers possess the No.7 scoring offense in football, while Cincinnati’s scoring defense is ranked No.9 in the NFL.
Prediction: Pittsburgh over Cincinnati, 27-20