With the crucial NFC East battle between Washington and Dallas taking place next week, Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh is the most critical game between two teams with legitimate divisional and Wild Card aspirations this week. As it stands, the Bengals would be in the playoffs with the sixth seed. Looking ahead with our NFL Playoff Odds simulations, Cincinnati, which gets Baltimore at home next week, is 9.4% likely to win the AFC North and 60% likely to earn a Wild Card berth. At 10.7%, Pittsburgh is slightly more likely to win the division, yet there is a good chance that the Steelers miss the playoffs altogether as the team only wins a Wild Card spot 19.4% of the time. This game will obviously go a long way towards clarifying the AFC Playoff picture.
Right now, with the way that the teams are playing and given the health of the rosters, Cincinnati is the better team in this matchup. Given home field advantage, that does not necessarily mean that the Bengals should win the game over the Steelers, but it is incredibly close. Pittsburgh does not warrant being more than a field goal favorite in this situation (which would suggest that the Steelers are at least a point better than Cincinnati on a neutral field).
While it is easy for the public to note the better quarterback in a matchup, the market generally misses the value of and the relative difference in the teams' pass rushes. In the last 17 consecutive games of our (20-3 ATS all-time) NFL playoff picks, we have picked the team with the better pass rush to cover. When the game slows down and every down means more, getting to the quarterback is just as important as having a quality quarterback. With Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson all healthy and playing well together right now, Cincinnati has the league's second-best pass rush and best defensive front four (the second unit that includes Robert Geathers, Pat Sims, Devon Still and Wallace Gilberry is very good as well).
By the numbers, Cincinnati is 8-6 straight-up and 7-6-1 against-the-spread versus the easiest NFL strength-of-schedule in the league thus far. The Bengals have won five of the last six games both straight-up and against-the-spread with a defense that has helped keep five of those games under leading the way.
For Pittsburgh, the story of an underperforming season has been injuries. The Steelers treaded water early in the year while productive starters Troy Polumalu (S), Rashard Mendenhall (RB) and James Harrison (LB), among others, healed from significant injuries. By the time those players got healthy and the team looked ready to roll, the injury bug struck again - this time to the cornerbacks, wide receivers and offensive line. Going into this game, though the three players we just mentioned should be available to play, starters Ike Taylor (CB), Emmanuel Sanders (WR), Mike Adams (OL), Willie Colon (OL) and Marcus Gilbert (OL) are all likely to miss this crucial contest (and potentially the rest of the season). Meanwhile, as if the Taylor injury had not been bad enough to the defense, the CBs that were likely to fill in - Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis -- are both dealing with hip pointers (one of the tougher injuries to play through for a cornerback). The Bengals may have lost to Pittsburgh by a touchdown in Cincinnati (Week 7), but they are getting the Steelers at the right time to capitalize now.
Pittsburgh is 7-7 straight-up and 5-8-1 against-the-spread versus the fourth easiest NFL schedule of 2012. As presently constructed (i.e. with current injuries), Pittsburgh ranks 15th in our NFL Power Rankings and only ranks in the top 15 NFL teams in run defense (#5) in our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency rankings. Bengals' running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis may not have a great game, but just about everyone else on the team, especially wide receiver A.J. Green, should be in good shape against Pittsburgh.
According to 50,000 games played, the Pittsburgh Steelers win at home over the Cincinnati Bengals just 53.6% of the time and by an average score of 21.3-20.1. As 4.5 point underdogs that lose by just a point on average, Cincinnati covers the spread 58.4% of the time. With 52.38% needed to turn a profit against -110 odds, this confidence would warrant a $63 play from a normal $50 player. The UNDER (43.5) is also playable at 53.7% and would justify a $14 play from a normal $50 player.
Like the last two weeks discussions, this pick is not significantly stronger than others, so we are again recommending diversification for Week 16. In fact, the separation between this top play on Sunday and the seventh strongest ATS or O/U opinion is just 2.2% in confidence (or about $20 in wager recommendations for a $50 player). It is not surprising that the lines have gotten sharper later into the season, but it is good to see that pick performance has also improved. Over the last three weeks, all sides in the NFL are 30-17 (64% ATS) and Paul's Picks are 9-3 (75% ATS).