5 Bold Predictions for Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 17 Matchup
As the most competitive division in the NFL, it is only appropriate that the winner of the AFC North will be decided in the final week of the regular season.
With all four teams in contention for a division title for most of the season, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals that rose to the top. These two will now battle in front of a national audience for not only the AFC North crown but also a guaranteed home playoff game.
The Steelers have won 12 of their past 16 against the Bengals, including a 42-21 victory earlier this season in Cincinnati. Sunday will mark the fourth time in the past three years they’ve met in a December game.
Each time, the Steelers have found themselves in a must-win situation, and they have performed well, winning two of the three meetings. Though they are already in the playoffs, the Steelers do not want to concede the division and will enter the game with a playoff mentality.
Will the Steelers continue their dominance over the Bengals and win their first AFC North title since 2010, or will the Bengals win it for the second straight year? Here are five bold predictions as the Steelers battle the Bengals in a key AFC North matchup.
Dalton Works Magic with Green
A.J. Green is one of the best receivers in the NFL, and he showed why against the Steelers earlier this season. He had his most productive game of the season with 11 receptions on 15 targets for 224 yards and a touchdown.
Three weeks later, the Steelers still haven’t found a way to shut down the passing game, and Green should once again be in store for a monster game. His problem, though, will be his own quarterback.
In prime-time games, Andy Dalton is a different quarterback than he is in afternoon regular-season games. According to stats compiled by Chris Strauss of USA Today, Dalton is 2-5 in prime-time games with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Dalton has a 70.93 quarterback rating during these games compared to a rating of 87.19 during day games. He has mixed results this season with four touchdowns and three interceptions, but he lost two of three late games, including one in which he completed just 30.30 percent of his passes.
In what amounts to a prime-time playoff game, Dalton is in a “worst-case scenario” based on his past performances. However, he has a strong ground game to lean on and a star wide receiver in Green. Besides, Pittsburgh’s secondary is nothing to fear.
Dalton will not completely break out of his funk in night games, but he will be able to work some magic with Green. Expect Green to have upward of 150 receiving yards and at least one score, which will be enough to keep the Bengals competitive and even put them in position to come out of Pittsburgh with the division title.
Harrison in Vintage Form
In arguably their three biggest games of the season, James Harrison was the best defender on the field for the Steelers.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs—all played at Heinz Field—Harrison was dominant. He combined for 16 tackles and 5.5 sacks. When you consider that he has 41 tackles and 5.5 sacks on the season, it is even more impressive.
Although it seems a lot to ask from a 36-year-old football player, Harrison is not the norm. He walked out of retirement and is tied for second on the team in sacks. But he has done so much more than just get after the quarterback.
Harrison is a leader of the defense and is still a force against the run as we all saw on a huge stop on fourth down against the Chiefs. Now he needs an encore performance if the Steelers are going to win the division.
With sacks in just three games this year, odds are that he will not get one on Sunday. Aside from his inability to put together a long string of games with sacks this year, he has to go up against Andrew Whitworth, who has allowed just a half-sack all season, per the Washington-Post.
However, with his team in need, Harrison will come up big one more time just as he did in the back-to-back games against the Colts and Ravens. Not only will he get a sack, but he will put enough pressure on Dalton to force a couple of bad throws.
Outside of his presence rushing the passer, Harrison will also be a force against the ground game to make at least one stop in the backfield. A productive Harrison will mean a good day for Pittsburgh’s defense.
Big Play for Willie Gay
Long criticized for being one of the worst players in the secondary, William Gay is now arguably the Steelers' best defensive back.
Gay began the year as the nickel back and eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. Once there, he developed into the best playmaker in the secondary and has the stats to back it up. Gay leads the team in passes defensed (12) and interceptions (three)—all of which he returned for a touchdown.
Last week against the Denver Broncos, Andy Dalton added to his prime-time woes with a pick-six thrown to Aqib Talib. This week, Gay will take the honors, as night games will continue to haunt Dalton. Not only will he have an interception returned for a score, but it will be a huge momentum change in the game.
Gay’s score will help open up a double-digit lead that will allow Pittsburgh’s ground attack to take over the game.
Bell Carries Pittsburgh’s Offense
Earlier this week, Le’Veon Bell was voted as the Steelers’ MVP, and now he has one more game to prove that he deserves the honor.
Bell already has 2,115 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns and will certainly add to this total on Sunday night. He has already shown that he can produce against the Bengals with 185 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and three touchdowns against the Bengals earlier this year.
It marked one of the most impressive performances in Bell’s young career as he averaged a season-high 7.1 yards per carry and dominated the fourth quarter with two scores—including a 22-yard touchdown, which essentially sealed the game.
As the Steelers enter their final game, they cannot worry about running the wheels off Bell and instead must rely on one of their best players to carry them to a division championship.
Until the Bengals can show that they can stop Bell, the Steelers must go to him. Cincinnati’s defense allows 122.1 yards per game on the ground, and Pittsburgh is more than capable of producing, averaging 113.9 rushing yards per game.
Bell is in a bit of a funk on the ground with only 110 yards on 2.75 yards per carry over the past two games, but he is due to break out of it. Todd Haley will find every way possible to get the ball in his most versatile player's hands.
Whether it is on the ground or through the air, Bell will have between 30 and 35 touches for at least 150 yards and a score. He just may approach his production that he had just three weeks ago against the Bengals if the Steelers go up big and can rely on the run to close out the game.
There will be no secret game plan for the Steelers. The ball will be put in Bell’s hands, and it will be up to the Bengals to stop him.
Explosive Quarter Leads Steelers to a Victory
The Steelers have one of the best offenses in the league with 27.3 points per game. As expected, an offense that scores that much has the ability to explode at any time.
The Steelers have played in six games in which they have scored at least 17 points in a quarter this season—winning five of them. In the first half of the season, it was the second quarter that was their strength.
Pittsburgh’s offense scored 17 points in the second quarter in the opener against the Cleveland Browns, 24 against the Houston Texans, 28 against the Indianapolis Colts and 22 against the Baltimore Ravens. Early leads helped earn victories but never felt like enough with a defense that has struggled all season.
Lately, the fourth quarter has been the strength of the Steelers. Against the Ravens, they scored 21 points in the fourth, 19 points in a comeback effort against the New Orleans Saints that came up short and 25 points against the Bengals.
With the division on the line, the Steelers will have a strong second quarter to build a small double-digit lead but will then put the game away with a huge fourth quarter behind the Killer B’s on offense—Ben, Brown and Bell.
The late-game explosion won’t make for much drama for the late-night viewers but will send a message to the rest of the AFC that the Steelers are ready to compete with anyone.
Steelers 38, Bengals 24