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Bengals-Steelers pregame stretch

December 1, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh

1 p.m. Sunday, CBS

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Annoyance factor: We couldn’t figure out why Nantz went overboard to tone down his usual anti-Steelers rhetoric the last time we heard him (a few weeks ago against the Patriots) and then it dawned on us. He was being extra careful because it was just nine months ago that he took so much heat for pro-Patriots commentary during a playoff game against the Jets that he had to address it at a press conference. Of course, the notion that Nantz is pro-Patriots or anti-Jets is petty and silly, while the notion that he is anti-Steelers is deadly serious and 100 percent proven fact (<----- self deprecation). In any event, let’s see if he’s not back to his old tricks again Sunday.

Referee: Carl Cheffers

Competence factor: Cheffers is in his fourth year as a white hat and has remained relatively under the radar with the exception of his blooper reel call (linked at right) of a triple-penalty in the Cowboys-Texans game last season.

The line: Pittsburgh -6.5

Smarts say: The boys in Vegas aren’t putting too much stock in Sunday night’s Steelers performance based on this healthy line. Of note, though, it quickly dropped from -7 to -6.5 Thursday when news surfaced that Ben Roethlisberger missed a portion of practice after aggravated his injured thumb taking a snap. Roethlisberger says he’s fine (what else would he say?) but it bears watching. The over/under of 42.5 indicates something in the range of 24-17 Steelers. You can check out the Las Vegas Hilton Supercontest picks (link at right) on Saturday afternoon to see how the professional bettors see this one.

Key matchup: Bengals safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson vs. the Steelers’ Mike Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger

Because: The Steelers have dropped all pretense that they’re a running team (throwing the ball on 57.2 percent of downs) and we might be looking at 50+ passes Sunday against the Bengals’ injury-decimated secondary. If that’s the case, Pittsburgh will need at least one field-stretching completion and, in case you haven’t noticed, those have been hard to come by in recent weeks for Mr. Wallace.

Quick hits:

+ We’re on record as postulating that the long view of history will say the NFL’s popularity peaked early in 2011 with the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl and this season, where the two overarching stories have been mediocre quarterback play and violent hits fines, sure has us thinking we’re on the right track.

+ Our friends at Advanced NFL Stats still contend the Steelers are the favorites to win the AFC North, showing them doing just that 51 percent of the time in 50,000 simulations of the season’s remaining games, compared to 48 percent for the Ravens. The other things those projections show is that if the Steelers don’t win the division they will almost certainly be the #5 playoff seed and almost certainly play their playoff opener at Oakland or Denver. Those projects show that if the Steelers do indeed win the division, the #2 seed is most likely but #1 and #3 are not yet out of the question.

The pick: We are very worried about this game for one simple reason: The Bengals need it much, much more badly than the Steelers do. We saw two weeks ago that Cincy is no fluke and Pittsburgh will need to clean things up considerably from Sunday night to have a shot here. As noted above, that shot probably involves a 50-pass afternoon…in December…at home…against a division opponent. Such talk would have been considered heresy even a couple years ago, but that’s the team Pittsburgh has right now (“young money” as the kiddies say) and it’s only going to tilt further in that direction as Emmanuel Sanders and Weslye Saunders get more involved in the already potent passing game. The Bengals, on the other hand, want to pound the ball with Ced Benson, let Andy Dalton manage the game, take a few shots down the field to A.J. Green and play tough defense. If that sounds familiar, it should. It used to be Pittsburgh’s MO. It’s an MO, of course, that lends itself to December football, but Sunday’s forecast is for very un-Decemberlike temps and a very close Steelers victory … Pittsburgh 24-23.

Last week: We nailed last Sunday night’s pick, virtually writing the script for Pittsburgh’s sloppy, frustrating win over the Chiefs. The double win left us at 7-4 straight up and 7-4 vs. the spread.

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