PREGAME STRETCH: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh

Something's gotta give in divisional matchup between two teams on the upswing

The game: Cincinnati Bengals (2-3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2), CBS, Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Heinz Field, 68,400.

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. It will be interesting this week to see how Romo’s approach changes seeing the same team two weeks in a row. Also, we were wrong last week about Romo making Nantz less annoying. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. Also, we’re hearing a common criticism of Romo (that he talks too much during plays, sometimes yells about open players) that we agree with from a cosmetic point of view. The yelling does not make for great TV, BUT it does indicate that Romo’s quarterback brain is seeing an open guy that your quarterback’s brain is not seeing and that might be good information to have.

Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Mostly sunny, 71. We’re starting to get the feeling that when this skein of beautiful weather finally ends, we’ll pay dearly. Just file away that Pittsburgh has home games on Dec. 10 (Ravens), 17 (Patriots) and 31 (Browns) and let’s see what conditions are like for those.

Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Bill Vinovich. A native of Rochester in Beaver County, Vinovich has a reputation as one of the best in the business, having worked a Super Bowl as a white hat. His current crew is calling 12 penalties per game and assessing 106 penalty yards, both well below the league average (and both likely to be exceeded during Sunday’s friendly get-together).

Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: The Bengals blew two separate 14-point leads and were outscored 15-0 by the Steelers in the second half in a 24-20 Pittsburgh win last December that set the winners up to clinch the AFC North the following week. This was Pittsburgh’s fourth straight win in the series (and seventh in the past eight games), which it leads 60-35. Eli Roger’s fourth-quarter touchdown catch complemented six Chris Boswell field goals in a game the Steelers won despite Le’Veon Bell being held to less than 100 yards rushing and Ben Roethlisberger being held to less than 300 yards passing.

The line: Pittsburgh -5.5/42

Smarts say: About 60 percent of bettors were giving the points and going with the Steelers as of midweek. All six Pittsburgh games so far this season have hit on the under and most bettors feel this is the week finally for an over (81 percent on the over at midweek). The O/U of 42 this week would mean something like Steelers 24-18.

Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 11th passing, 16th rushing, 22nd scoring (19.7 ppg), 9th sacks allowed (10)

CIN defense, 2nd passing, 14th rushing, 2nd scoring (16.6 ppg), 5th sacks (18)

When the Bengals have the ball:

CIN offense, 18th passing, 28th rushing, 30th scoring (16.8 ppg), 16th sacks allowed (15)

PIT defense, 1st passing, 23rd rushing, 4th scoring (17.0 ppg), 2nd sacks (20)

So…: The defensive stats in this game lend credence to the miniscule 42 over/under and defense has been dominant in this series lately with five of the last six games coming under 44 total points.

Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups: A.J. Green vs. Joe Haden

Why: Cincinnati is still struggle to find its running game and you better believe they’ll work Jeremy Hill, Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon hard against the suspect Steelers run defense, but the Bengals win when Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have big days and Green especially has been stellar against the Steelers. With Tyler Eifert gone for the year, the Bengals weaponry is considerably less daunting, and if Haden could do what the Steelers have been unable to do in the past, put the clamps on Green, the odds tilt solidly toward the Steelers.

Players on the spot: Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt vs. Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher

Why: The youthful duo has combined for five of Pittsburgh’s 20 sacks, but a lot of that action came in Weeks 1 and 2. Andrew Whitworth is gone from his longtime post guarding Andy Dalton’s blind side and at some point the Steelers are going to need a linebacker not named James Harrison to step up in the splash play department. Sunday would be a good time for either or both Dupree and Watt to take a step forward in that regard.

Quick hits:

+ Steelers fans and media have enjoyed a week of giddiness that comes on the heels on each of these big, regular-season wins we’ve become used to under Mike Tomlin. Columnists hit us with the requisite “and the scary thing is, this team can be better” columns we always get. The oddsmakers re-installed Pittsburgh as a Super Bowl favorite, behind only those pesky Patriots. Players “I told you so’d” and fans seemed to forget, at least temporarily, all of their National Anthem gripes. But we’re here to remind you that for the last seven years these highest-of-high wins have always, always, always been followed at some point by terrible losses to terrible teams and being totally out-coached and out-played by New England in the playoffs. We’ve been at this spot many, many times in those seven years, the glow after a big win. But until Mike Tomlin figures those other things out, we’re never going back to where we really want to be.

+ Shortly after last week’s big win, NFL “insider” Ian Rapoport reported, citing “sources,” that wide receiver Martavis Bryant was unhappy in the Steelers offense and was requesting a trade. Rapoport is the same “insider” who reported several years ago that Ben Roethlisberger had requested a trade to Arizona. Whether there was ever even a kernel of truth in that Roethlisberger story, we’ll never know. But we know it was never, ever substantially true. Based on the fallout from the Bryant story, we think it’s likely the same story (or non-story, as the case might be). An actual news or sports story has multiple named sources, grants anonymity to sources only rarely and only for good reason and proves to be substantially true. Under those standards, exactly 0.0 percent of NFL “insider” reporting is news reporting. It’s all gossip and conjecture (albeit good gossip if it’s being relayed by Adam Schefter or Chris Mortenson), most of it coming from agents and assistant coaches with agendas, who never should have been granted anonymity in the first place. At the time of the Roethlisberger story, we engaged Rapoport in a discussion on Twitter about the use of anonymous sources. We asked him if his news organization had standards for using anonymous sources. He said they did. We asked him if one of those standards was that anonymity should not be granted to anyone who stands to gain financially from the story. He said it was not and was incredulous that might even be suggested. That tells you all you need to know about the credibility of Rapoport’s anonymous reporting.

+ Even though it’s only Week 7, Sunday’s game has got huge playoff implications. That’s because Pittsburgh already has won on the road at Cleveland and at Baltimore. A win at home against Cincinnati would create a huge, early advantage for the Steelers in the divisional tiebreakers. Conversely, even though they started 0-3, the Bengals get right back in the thick of the divisional race with a win and set up a huge rematch on Monday Night Football on Dec. 4 in Cincy.

The pick: The Bengals appeared to be as bad a football team as we’d ever seen in stripes during the first two weeks of the season and Andy Dalton looked like anything but a competent NFL starter. But then they fired Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese and immediately looked like a different team, taking the Packers to overtime then beating the Browns and the Bills. Coming in off their bye with an extra week to prepare, we wonder whether the Cincy team we see Sunday will be ever better. If you’re getting the sense about now we’re picking against Pittsburgh this week, you’re right. A win here puts the Steelers in such a good position in their division and in the AFC and that just is not the MO of a Mike Tomlin team. We think this team is winning the AFC North, but they’ll do it the hard way, which means not until December… Bengals 24-14.

Last week: We got off the schneid last week with a clutch double win, calling the Steelers win and the five-point margin of victory. The leaves us at 3-3 straight up and 4-2 against the spread.

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