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Pregame stretch:
Bengals vs. Steelers

December 13, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Cincinnati Bengal (9-4) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. EST, NBC

Announcers: Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth
Annoyance factor: Minimal. The more we watch everyone else, the more we’re convinced these two are the best in the business – and it isn’t close. Our one concern about this broadcast is how much time NBC spends rehashing Mike Tomlin’s sideline mishap in Baltimore.
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Weather - or not?: Windy, cold, 30 percent chance of snow showers, mid teens. Those temps, combined with 10-15 mph winds, mean real feel temps will be near zero, similar conditions to Monday night’s Bears-Cowboys game. If winter weather was no advantage to the Steelers vs. a team from South Florida, you’d have to think it has zero impact on this game, beyond keeping fans away.
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How they rank
Cincinnati offense: 12th passing, 14th rushing
Pittsburgh defense: 7th passing , 24th rushing
Pittsburgh offense: 7th passing, 31st rushing
Cincinnati defense: 8th passing, 5th rushing
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Referee: Ed Hochuli
Competence factor: Afraid to say because I might get beat up. For better or worse, the bulging biceps of the man known simply as “R-85” have become the first thing the average NFL fans thinks of when talk turns to “good” officiating. And while Hochuli, who’s been the white hat for two Super Bowls, and his crew remain in the upper half as far as competency, they’re not immune to the same foul-ups that haunt other crews and the league.
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The line: Cincinnati -3
Smarts say: We’re surprised this line isn’t a little higher but we know what a public force the Steelers betting contingent can be. The usual over/under of 41 means the usual line-friendly final of 22-20 Bengals.
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Key matchups:
Bengals RB Giovani Bernard vs. Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell
Because: Of course, these two aren’t actually going against each other, but whichever one has a better day could decide who wins this game. Bernard had a dazzling TD catch and run in the first meeting while Bell was not yet active. The Steelers might be in better position to stop Bernard this time with Troy Polamalu’s new LB-like responsibilities in Pittsburgh’s quarters defense. Meanwhile, Bell has looked like a guy ready to have a breakout game the past two weeks and the third time might be a charm for the rookie.

Quick hits:
+ We’ve seen a lot of characterizations of LaMarr Woodley’s contract as “wasting money on a non-productive veteran.” While that’s fairly accurate, it’s not exactly fair as when Pittsburgh extended Woodley he was a productive, durable player entering the prime years of his career. It’s only since he signed the mega-bucks deal that he’s become injury prone and unproductive. In retrospect, it’s a terrible deal, but from the outside looking in it’s hard to say it’s a mistake that could have been avoided. We don’t remember anyone advocating that Woodley should not have been extended.
+ We almost fell out of our chair when Dean Blandino, the NFL’s refereeing guru, said on Tuesday that Ben Roethlisberger’s clearly forward lateral from the final play of the Dolphins game would have held up as legal under review. We had already watched the play 100 times by then, frame by frame several times, but went back and watched it 10 more. Being as generous as possible on how far #7 reached forward before releasing the ball we’ll give him the 32. Being as generous as possible on how far Antonio Brown reached back we’ll give him the 33. It still appears obvious and inarguable to our eyes that the play was an illegal forward pass. So, two things about Blandino: One, no wonder the officiating is so bad when the boss can’t see. Two, it’s all well and good for him to say a play would have been called a certain way, but in reality he shouldn’t make that judgment. It was not his call. It was John Parry’s call. And he wouldn’t have gotten to wait until Tuesday to make it, he’d have made it on the spot and in the moment on Sunday.
+ News followed on Wednesday that Ray Anderson is leaving his position as Roger Goodell’s hatchet man, er, vice president of football operations. In 50 years, Goodell and Anderson will be remembered as the men who made a futile attempt to legislate violence out of professional football. We don’t imagine Anderson’s departure means there’s any seismic shift on the horizon as far as league discipline. We’d imagine Anderson’s right-hand man, Merton “Chicken Neck” Hanks, might be in line for a promotion.
+ There seems to have been a broader awakening over the past few weeks to Mike Tomlin’s poor in-game coaching decisions. Of course, losing helps highlight the blunders, but if anyone thinks they’re a new phenomenon, we invite them to go back and watch the Steelers-Jaguars playoff game from January 2008 (Tomlin’s first season), won by the Jags 31-29 after the Steelers failed to convert three (count ‘em) three two-point conversions in the second half of the game, including one with eight minutes left where he still went for two after being assessed a 10-yard penalty. As we’ve said all along, the most disturbing thing about the strategic blunders is that they keep happening.

The pick: This is probably a good time to mention that this game might be decided based on which Andy Dalton shows up. The guys who was the AFC Player of the Month in October? Or the one who nearly played himself onto the bench a few weeks later? Dalton has yet to establish himself as a real factor in this series, so we’re guessing it’ll be somewhere in between those two extremes. That takes us back to the young running backs and he have the strangest feeling Pittsburgh will be able to run the football in this game and spoil both the Bengals’ hopes for a bye and their own chance at a Top 10 pick ... Steelers 20-17.
Last week: The Steelers didn’t win or cover last week, meaning our season, just like theirs, is a lost cause. That leaves us at 5-8 straight up and 6-7 against the spread.

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