This weekend will mark the beginning of the NFL playoffs along with the Steelers chance to repeat their fabled run ten years ago – can the Steelers work that 6-seed magic one more time? Even without Andy Dalton the Steelers will have a tall order against their AFC North rivals, but how well do the two teams match-up? Their playoff rubber match will decide both teams fate and perhaps the fates of some of the players/coaches involved.
AJ McCarron vs. Ben Roethlisberger – Even though he hasn’t looked like himself the last two weeks, you cannot discredit Big Ben in this matchup. If Pittsburgh plans on making a run this year it all starts with Ben. His arm and this offense are more than capable of tearing the roof off any defense in this tournament, but it starts with Ben limiting his turnovers and fixing his recent run of hasty decision making (6:7 TD/INT ratio the last four games). On the flip side, McCarron has filled in nicely for the injured Dalton and considering his superb records in high school and college it can be safe to say the former Crimson Tide star and National Championship winner will be unfazed by the pressure and severity surrounding this game.
Edge – Steelers
Hill/Bernard vs. Todman/Toussiant – As of this morning, DeAngelo Williams is officially ruled out of Saturday’s contest, leaving the T-duo of Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint as the go-to backs come kickoff. Williams was tied for a NFL-best 11 rushing touchdowns and his 907 rushing yards will surely be missed. With the Steelers potent passing attack they might be able to squeak by with this rag-tag duo, but clearly Cincinnati has the advantage here. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill have combined for a lousy 128 yards on the ground against the Steelers during their two seasonal games. However even with that surprising statistical consideration it is tough to bet against a respectable two-punch combo that’s helped lead the Bengals to a AFC North Divisional title against a duo of career backups that have combined for a mere 64 yards this season.
Edge – Bengals
A.J. Green vs. Antonio Brown – Two of the best wide receivers in the league will be on display in this game, but only one will have the luxury of having a top-tier quarterback throwing their way. In addition the drop off in talent after Green is significant for the Bengals. Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are decent slot receivers, but outside the occasional big play the Bengals aerial attack depends on Green (and Eifert). Even with Martavis Byrant’s recent run of poor form the Steelers still have capable possession man Markus Wheaton and the explosive play of Darrius Heyward-Bey to help accent Brown who has clearly elevated his game this season.
Edge – Steelers
Tyler Eifert vs. Heath Miller – Eifert has been a touchdown machine all year for Cincy (13 total), but he has yet to find the endzone against Pittsburgh this season. Ironically, the veteran Miller has also not been able to find pay dirt in the seasonal series either. The difference here is Miller’s 171 yards on 20 catches in their two contests this year compared to Eifert’s 81 yards on 6 catches.
Edge – Steelers
This is may be the least talked about match-up coming into Saturday’s game, but easily one of the most intriguing ones. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap have both hit double digit sacks this year (11 and 13.5 respectively). They are the anchors to not only the Bengals D-line, but also their defense – when they’re on, this team is nearly unstoppable. On the other side of the field, the explosive and agile combination of defensive ends, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward have produced a combined 13.5 sacks for the Steelers and continue to wreak havoc for offensive lines with their speed. However, for as good as Tuitt and Heyward have been, their combined numbers match the total of just one Carlos Dunlap.
Edge – Bengals
This one is tough to call. Both teams have some studs in the heart of their defense. Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Hawk, Rey Maualuga, and Vincent Rey are all tackling machines. Meanwhile Lawrence Timmons is the cornerstone to what has been a revolving door of playmakers for Blitzburgh including future HOFer James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Athur Moats, and 2015 first-rounder Bud Dupree. The Steelers rotation has been effective with each of the listed players recording at least two sacks this season, but this one is still a toss-up. The only thing guaranteed here is some bruising, heavy hits that the AFC North is known for.
Edge – Push
While this breakdown still heavily favors the Bengals, the actual numbers make it slightly closer than one may think. Cincy finished the season 20th overall in pass defense while the Steelers finished at a lowly 30th in the league. However, the Steelers did manage to produce 17 interceptions compared to Cincy’s 21. Interestingly enough both teams surrendered a 64% completion rate against opposing quarterbacks – only four other teams had a worse rate (San Francisco, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans). In the end the kicker is the average passing yards per game. The Steelers gave up a near league worse 272 passing yards per game (only the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints gave up more yards through the air) compared to Cincinnati’s 249.
Edge – Bengals
Both teams have an identical 83.9% success rate on field goals this season (both went 26/31 on the year). However, the Steelers finished the season with the highest return yards from kickoffs in the NFL with 1,200 yards on 54 returns compared to Cincy’s 1,041 on 46 returns. In a game where field position will certainly play a factor such arbitrary numbers may determine the game. One must also consider the threat of Antonio Brown in the Steelers’ punt return game. And while the Bengals have completed all 27 of their extra point attempts, the Steelers league-best 72.7% (8/11) on two-point conversions may truly be what decides this game. Playing it safe with PATs doesn’t always give your team the best chance to win.
Edge – Steelers
Final Prediction – Steelers 26 – Bengals 20
Ultimately it comes down to quarterbacks and coaching. Big Ben is more than capable of taking this game over and will more than likely have to do so, if Pittsburgh wants to advance. Marvin Lewis hasn’t won a playoff game in six appearances whereas Mike Tomlin has consistently found ways to win this season (in addition to a 5-4 playoff record). The Steelers defense lives and dies with the turnover battle, but in a game that will likely go down to the wire – it will be the coaches who decide it. I fancy Tomlin outlasting Lewis, who has yet to survive the pressure of the postseason.
The rest of the Wild Card Game Predictions
Kansas City Chiefs 30 – Houston Texans 17
The Chiefs are easily the hottest team in the AFC right now riding a 10-game winning streak and I just do not see the Texans (even at home) being able to stop them. Brian Hoyer and DeAndre Hopkins will give the Chiefs some problems, but ultimately the Chiefs D-line will out-muscle and out-hustle the Texans offensive line.
Minnesota Vikings 17 – Seattle Seahawks 14
For as stellar as Russel Wilson has been the second half of this season (21:1 TD/INT ratio since Week 11) I still like the Vikings at home. This is the Vikings first home playoff game since 2009 and you better believe the crowd will factor into this one. The Seahawks have historically been a weaker road team (5-3 this year on the road) and I like a playoff motivated Adrian Peterson over a surging Russel Wilson.
Washington Redskins 38 – Green Bay Packers 28
This one comes down to Kirk Cousins at home over a lackluster Green Bay squad. Despite the common narrative, Rodgers’ isn’t all that great in the postseason posting only a 7-5 record in 12 games. Considering how inconsistent the Packers have been all year I just cannot go against a ‘Captain Kirk’ Cousins at home. Especially not when he’s put up 2,170 yards and a 16:2 TD/INT ratio at FedEx Field this year, including four 300-plus yard games.