Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, January 7, 2016 at 1:00 PM
Saturday’s second NFC Wildcard game will feature the #6 seed Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the #3 seed Cincinnati Bengals. Though Cincinnati came close to being a #2 seed and getting a bye (until Peyton Manning rallied the Broncos last Sunday!), they are now faced with being a home underdog to one of the 2015 regular season’s strong finishers.
*Pittsburgh has been better than Cincinnati down the stretch
*Pittsburgh won at Cincinnati 33-20 a few weeks ago
*Cincinnati will be starting either A.J. McCarron at quarterback, or a rusty and hurt Andy Dalton who just had the cast taken off his broken thumb.
Dalton was injured in that Pittsburgh game. Since the Steelers won so easily, it’s assumed by many that another victory is imminent. Worth noting that…
*Cincinnati actually won total yardage in that game 385-354
*Cincinnati won yards-per-play even more impressively 6.9 to 5.1
*Pittsburgh scored on TD on an interception return
*Pittsburgh won the turnover category 3-1
It was a “turnover” victory for the Steelers rather than an “outclassing the opponent” victory. If McCarron or a returning Dalton can play clean, we’ll have a ball game. This is the same Pittsburgh team that almost blew its playoff spot by losing to Baltimore, after all.
Let’s see what JIM HURLEY’S key indicator stats have to say about Saturday’s prime time battle in the AFC…
Pittsburgh: 10-6 (#10 ranked schedule according to Sagarin)
Cincinnati: 12-4 (#15 ranked schedule according to Sagarin)
Similar teams on the whole, because Roethlisberger missed some time to injury as well. If both teams were at full strength all year, and played the same schedule…we’re probably close to the same won-lost record. Cincinnati with Dalton is great at winning regular season games (not so much in the playoffs). Pittsburgh with a healthy Roethlisberger is always dangerous. The key is keeping him healthy while he takes so many hits.
Pittsburgh: 6.3 on offense, 5.5 on defense
Cincinnati: 5.7 on offense, 5.3 on defense
Pittsburgh had a knack for making big plays this season. That helped produce a stellar YPP mark on offense. Late in the season, though, the defense became too prone to fall into shootouts. That style just doesn’t work in the playoffs. Maybe you can get away with it against a backup quarterback. Pittsburgh won’t be defeating New England or Denver down the road without better work from their defense. (Pittsburgh will visit New England in the Divisional Round if they win this week, with Denver then favored to be waiting for them a week later). Cincinnati gets the nod on defense, and would be likely to post a better number on the off chance Dalton returned at something approaching full strength.
2015 Turnover Differential
One of the problems with downfield passing is that you throw more interceptions, and suffer fumbles more often when the quarterback gets hit. Pittsburgh won the turnover category in that last meeting on this field, but is far from a sure thing to repeat. McCarron learned from his mistakes. Dalton will likely throw conservatively if he tries to play. Cincinnati can definitely win the game if they can win this category 1-0 or 2-1 Saturday night. The risk-reward element is either a toss-up or slightly favors the Bengals in this current environment.
2015 Market Performance
Pittsburgh: 9-6-1 ATS (6-10 to the Under)
Cincinnati: 12-3-1 ATS
Cincinnati was one of the most underrated teams in the NFL all season. It was 12-2-1 before a near-miss in the season finale. McCarron actually went 2-1 ATS as a starter with covers in Denver and San Francisco. We threw in that Over/Under trend for Pittsburgh because they’re seen as being a high scoring team this year. The market actually overestimated that generally, leading to a lot more Unders than Overs.
Current Line: Pittsburgh by 2.5, total of 46
Home field is probably only worth a couple of points here because Pittsburgh is experienced at this site. The market is saying Pittsburgh would be favored by about 4 to 4.5 on a neutral field, and closer to -6 or -7 at home. Is that fair based on the numbers we’ve just reviewed? It’s only fair if the Cincinnati offense can’t execute cleanly in a high pressure game against an experienced opponent. That’s the key to picking this winner. If you trust McCarron’s learning curve, or that Dalton can return and execute…then the Bengals offer value. If not…then Pittsburgh clears the hurdle fairly easily.
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More big game previews coming up in the NOTEBOOK…
Weekend: NFL Wildcard Preview…Green Bay at Washington
Monday: College Football CHAMPIONSHIP Preview…Alabama vs. Clemson
Tuesday: NFL Divisional Round Preview…to be determined
Next Thursday: NFL Divisional Round Preview…to be determined
So great for Las Vegas betting that the college championship game comes right on the heels of Wildcard Weekend. Big games…big money at stake…so hook up with the biggest name in sports handicapping JIM HURLEY!
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