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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 7:00 PM

It didn’t seem likely a few weeks ago, when Cincinnati was losing to Miami and Baltimore shortly after winning thrillers against Buffalo and Detroit. But, heading into Sunday Night’s nationally televised AFC North showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals are now very legitimate threats to reach the Super Bowl.

What happened?

*They got their heads on straight on both sides of the ball, with more balance on offense and a strong defense kicking things up another notch.

*New England lost star receiver Rob Gronkowski for the season to a knee injury. New England is much less potent without Gronk, as they proved in a 13-6 loss in Cincinnati to these very Bengals in the fifth game of the season.

*Denver reminded everyone this past Thursday Night that they’re vulnerable against the grinding style of attack that Cincinnati is best suited for. San Diego won time of possession by a huge margin in 27-20 upset you probably watched on TV. Cincinnati just outplayed that same San Diego team on the road in a 17-10 victory.

We’re not saying Cincinnati is “better” than Denver in the big picture. But, thanks to their much superior defense, they better fit the profile of what wins in the playoffs. Cincinnati might be this year’s Baltimore. You saw what Baltimore did last year…and almost did the year before as underdogs against teams who were better in the Power Ratings.

Those three teams are your most serious threats in the AFC brackets. They will be the top three seeds. If New England slumps home because of the Gronkowski injury, Cincinnati will get the bye and a home game that comes with finishing #2.

Well…unless they get exposed as a pretender in their last few games. That’s why Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh is so important. Cincinnati can send a message. Or, they can stumble around and hurt their chances for a top two seed.


Won-Lost Records (strength of schedule)

Cincinnati: 9-4 (#24 schedule in USA Today)

Pittsburgh: 5-8 (#29 schedule in USA Today)

Cincinnati has benefitted from playing a below average schedule. And, in most seasons, you probably wouldn’t be talking about them as a top two seed. The AFC is so bad this year that what would normally be slightly better than Wildcard caliber is now knocking at the door of a bye. Note that the Bengals still rate behind Seattle, New Orleans, Carolina, and San Francisco in most Power Ratings. We haven’t talked much about Pittsburgh yet. Do they even matter?! A 5-8 record against a very poor schedule suggests they’ve been very overrated this season.


Yards-Per Play

Cincinnati: 5.4 on offense, 4.8 on defense

Pittsburgh: 5.3 on offense, 5.3 on defense

Again, Pittsburgh played a very weak schedule. So, break even in YPP differential is a strike against them. Cincinnati has the numbers of a playoff caliber team.


Turnover Differential

Cincinnati: -1

Pittsburgh: -4

Normally, this would be a big strike against Cincinnati. The best postseason threats generally get the best of it in this stat because of attacking defenses and offenses that know how to protect the ball. But, Denver is down in this same range…meaning it probably wouldn’t be a meaningful negative until the Super Bowl if the Bengals get that far.


Market Performance

Cincinnati: 8-4-1 ATS

Pittsburgh: 6-7 ATS

Cincinnati has caught oddsmakers by surprise, with a 67% cover rate to this point in the season. The market has misread several teams…but has largely been in synch with Pittsburgh’s demise.


Current Line: Cincinnati by 2.5, total 41


Home field advantage is worth there points in the NFL. The market is telling you Cincinnati would be favored by 5.5 on a neutral field, and 8.5 at home. That’s not too big a leap from the -7 the Bengals were laying in Week Two the first time these teams met this season. It might be telling for Las Vegas betting purposes that sharps haven’t hit the Bengals hard at that number. If they liked the Bengals, they surely would have pushed that line to the solid three. Sharps prefer Pittsburgh +3, and are also looking to use the Steelers at +8.5 in two-team teasers. 

At press time, Cincinnati/Pittsburgh is very likely to be part of JIM HURLEY’S slate of selections in Sunday’s NFL. You can purchase the final word in the morning before kickoff of the early games with your credit card. If you want details on our “rest of football” options (that include the college bowls and the NFL playoffs) call us in the office Sunday morning at 1-888-777-4155.

Back with you Monday to preview Baltimore at Detroit, which is shaping up as a very entertaining game that both teams need to win. It’s back to basketball for a few days after that (marquee matchups this week include Memphis/Florida, Texas/North Carolina, and UCLA/Duke!). The college bowls get started at the end of the week…and we’ll be previewing many of the marquee matchups right here in the NOTEBOOK.

Join us every day for great handicapping information…then link up with JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK for BIG, JUICY WINNERS!

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