PREGAME STRETCH: Steelers at Bengals

With nothing to play for, Bengals loom as dangerous spoiler

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1) at Paul Brown Stadium, capacity 65,515; Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts. We watched last week’s game in a crowded sports bar in the French Quarter in New Orleans and did not hear one word Jeem or Pheel said. It was glorious. This Sunday, it will be interesting to hear what we get from Fouts, who seemed to be ascending as an analyst last year, but seems to have regressed badly this year. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Cloudy, high 20’s. It looks like this will be played in normal December conditions, one day on either side of an unusually warm Saturday and an Arctic Monday in the Queen City. Also, please don’t participate in the silly new custom of naming winter storms like hurricanes. Please. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank: Cincinnati offense: 11th passing, 8th rushing, 23rd ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 21st passing, 4th rushing, 9th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 8th passing, 9th rushing, 12th ppg; Cincinnati defense: 12th passing, 25th rushing, 11th ppg; Sacks: Cincinnati 24th (25); Pittsburgh 11th (31); Sacks allowed: Cincinnati 26th (36), Pittsburgh 2nd (16). Comment: In shutting down the best running team in the league last week, the Steelers improved from ninth to fourth in that category. With five sacks of Tyrod Taylor, the Pittsburgh ascended to 11th in the league in that category. It still seems a bit surreal that just five weeks ago we were talking about a Steelers defense that couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t get to the quarterback.

Referee: Pete Vinovich. Competence factor: Top notch. Vinovich was the Super Bowl white hat in 2015 and worked the NFC Championship game this past January. He’s emerged as one of the top three officials in the league. His 2016-17 crew is calling a modest 11 penalties per game for a miniscule 89 yards.  Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.

The line: Steelers -3. Smarts say: Predictable line in a division game where betting patterns are well established. The over/under of 44 is the lowest of the season for a Steelers game and means something like Pittsburgh 24-21. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

The last time: Xavier Grimble (remember him?) and Jesse James caught TD passes as the Steelers handled the Bengals 24-16 in September at the friendly confines of Heinz Field. Neither Le’Veon Bell nor Vontaze Burfict played in the game because of suspensions.

Key matchup: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Let’s try this again since Le’Veon Bell had other thoughts about last week’s game coming down to #7’s play (and thank God he did and it didn’t because, of course, #7 was terrible). Figuring the Bengals will NOT let Bell beat them the way he beat the Bills, we’re back here, wondering if Roethlisberger’s career propensity for playing well in the state of Ohio will trump his 2016 propensity for playing poorly on the road. For Pittsburgh to win, it better, for real this time.

Quick hits:

+ So, after we all but buried Bud Dupree’s career in this space last week, he went out in Buffalo and played the best game of his career, recording 6 tackles and 2.5 sacks, along with numerous disruptions. While we’re thrilled to see the production, let’s pump the brakes on Dupree’s “resurgence” as the team’s web site termed it this week. First, it’s one game. Second, it sure looked to us to be a game where the slippery surface slowed everything down just enough for Dupree to catch up. Obviously, this was a player with elite speed coming out of college, but combine speed and playing-linebacker-in-the-NFL speed are two different things. You hear great players talk all the time about the game “slowing down” for them in their second year in the league and let’s hope Dupree can build on last week’s success playing on any surface going forward.

+ Summing up the Steelers playoff chances with the help of the New York Times simulator: If they win out, 82 percent chance as the #3 seed and a 17 percent chance of getting a bye as #2 seed. If they go 2-1, with one of those wins coming over the Ravens, 87 percent chance of being the #3 seed and a 13 percent chance as #4 seed. If they go 2-1, but lose to the Ravens, 61 percent chance #3 seed, 9 percent chance #4 seed, 3 percent chance #5 seed, 17 percent chance #6 seed, 10 percent chance miss the playoffs. If they go 1-2, losing to CIN and BAL, but beating CLE, the computers say still 8 percent chance #3 seed, 15 percent chance #4 seed, 18 percent chance #6 seed, 59 percent chance of missing the playoffs. In terms of this weekend, a Pittsburgh win and Baltimore loss would leave the Steelers with a 95 percent chance of making the playoffs.

+ The fact that James Harrison was drug tested twice “randomly” by the NFL this past week tells us either a) the league doesn’t understand how PEDs work (they are not like Popeye’s spinach, providing immediate results, it would be counterproductive for a player to be using most PEDs during the season) or b) they suspect Harrison of using heavy-duty stimulants.

Random New Orleans observations and tales

+ Luckily, the owner of that sports bar in the Quarter is a PA native, so the Steelers game was front and center, complete with renditions of “Black and Yellow,” “The Pittsburgh Polka” and “Here We Go” mixed in over the sound system after every touchdown. There are fewer “Steelers” bars in New Orleans than there used to be since the Saints got good, but the local team was a late game Sunday so we didn’t have to deal with that dynamic. However, there was a young gentleman behind us in the bar, wearing a “Ride or Die” Saints hat and smoking a marijuana cigarette. Although pot is not (yet) legal in Louisiana, there was definitely more open use everywhere we went in the city.

+ In a sure sign of our age, we spent five days in NOLA and did not visit Bourbon Street once. We did go to Cafe du Monde four times in five days, though. Coffee over Huge Ass Beers, it appears.

+ According to our Fitbit, we walked 45 miles over the 5+ days and we still gained four pounds. To be completely honest, the best thing we ate was an order of deep-fried Gulf shrimp from a threadbare neighborhood grocery store (Opelousas Point Supermarket) in Algiers Point. And the second best thing was a Raspberry Champagne donut from District Donuts on Magazine Street.

The pick:… This game means nothing in the standings to the Bengals and that’s the exact kind of game they win in this series. A win here would huge for the Steelers in terms of playoff positioning and that’s the exact kind of games Mike Tomlin teams have lost in the past few years (preferring instead to enter Week 17 needing a win and help). How the Bengals would win Sunday involves a strong game from Andy Dalton using tight ends Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah frequently and a couple critical turnovers from Ben Roethlisberger, most likely caused by the havoc-raising Carlos Dunlap. Setting up a “do or die” Christmas day for Pittsburgh… Bengals 27-20.

Last week: We had the Steelers winning but not covering last week and the split decision leaves us at 9-4 straight up and 7-6 against the spread.


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