Instead of a dominant defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into the playoffs by relying on an explosive offense, and running back Le’Veon Bell has been a big reason for the success.
Bell is the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 1,341 yards, and Ben Roethlisberger is second in the league in passing yards with 4,635. Add it all up and the Steelers rank No. 2 in total offense at 415.4 yards per game.
What’s most important to Pittsburgh (10-5) is not finishing second in the AFC North. The Steelers are 3½-point favorites over Cincinnati today, and with the division title on the line, handicapper Mark Franco is siding with the home favorite.
Bell (185 yards rushing, two touchdowns) and Roethlisberger (350 yards passing, three touchdowns) led the Steelers to a 42-21 victory over the Bengals on Dec. 7. This time, the loser hits the road for wild-card weekend.
Cincinnati (10-4-1) still sits in first place after upsetting Denver on Monday. Franco said he doubts Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton can trade shots with Roethlisberger.
“It’s going to be almost impossible for the Steelers to top what Big Ben and Bell produced the first time around, but their offense still will have success all day against the Bengals defense,” said Franco, who is 42-37-1 against the spread in the Review-Journal NFL Challenge, a simulation of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest.
“Roethlisberger has the league’s most consistent weapon in wide receiver Antonio Brown, and Bell provides outstanding balance to the offense. I can see the Steelers doing some damage in the playoffs.
“Cincinnati must overcome a short week and find a way to avenge a 21-point home loss. Are we going to see the good Dalton like last week or the bad Andy like we have so many times in big games? I say somewhere in the middle, and that’s not enough to beat the Steelers at home.”
The Bengals are 2-5 ATS in the rivals’ past seven meetings in Pittsburgh.
Franco (FrancoSports.com) breaks down the rest of the Week 17 rotation:
■ Detroit at Green Bay (-7½): The Lions’ last win in Green Bay came on Dec. 15, 1991. Almost as ugly as Detroit’s streak in Green Bay is quarterback Matthew Stafford’s 0-16 road record against teams that finish with a winning record. The Lions did hold the Packers to a season-low point total in a 19-7 win in Week 3, but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are 7-0 at home and average a staggering 41.1 points at Lambeau Field. Rodgers will be firing lasers at the Lions’ weak secondary. Green Bay gets its fourth straight division title and the cover.
■ Jacksonville at Houston (-9½): It’s not unthinkable for Houston to make the playoffs with a win, but it will require both Cleveland to upend Baltimore and Kansas City to beat San Diego. J.J. Watt is no doubt the defensive player of the year, but there is not much else to get excited about when it comes to the Texans, who are 3-9-1 ATS in their past 13 games following a straight-up win. The Jaguars are 3-1-1 ATS in their past five trips to Houston. This could be one of the least interesting games of the day, but I would take Jacksonville and the points.
■ Indianapolis (-7) at Tennessee: The Colts do not officially have anything to play for when they try for their seventh straight victory over the Titans, but they want to enter the playoffs on a positive note. Indianapolis needs to at least remove the stench of its Week 16 no-show in Dallas before it looks ahead to its first-round playoff rematch against either the Bengals or Steelers. The Colts have been average at best for the past month, so I can’t lay a touchdown on the road. It’s tough to back the Titans, who get the No. 2 pick in the draft with a loss.
■ Cleveland at Baltimore (-13½): The Ravens were badly outplayed last week by the Texans, a loss that could wind up costing them a playoff spot. But Baltimore will do what it has to do against the reeling Browns and then hope for help from Kansas City against the Chargers. I think Connor Shaw will play well, giving Cleveland better production than it got from its other rookie quarterback of the past two weeks. I cannot lay this big number with the Ravens, so this is a pass.
■ Buffalo at New England (-5): The Patriots have nothing to play for in this game, unless you count Tom Brady’s 43-game home win streak. Brady has not lost at home to an AFC team since 2006. We’ll find out if that streak means anything to coach Bill Belichick, and if it doesn’t, the New England starters will likely sit for at least the second half. No opinion.
■ N.Y. Jets at Miami (-6): Although the Dolphins were eliminated from the playoff chase last week, coach Joe Philbin was given a vote of confidence by team owner Stephen Ross, and I’m not sure why. A win today would give the Dolphins their first winning season since 2008. Jets coach Rex Ryan is expected to be fired. For me, this game comes down to Miami having the much more productive offense behind quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Laying less than a touchdown is value with the Dolphins.
■ Carolina at Atlanta (-3): Don’t let the records fool you. The Panthers (6-8-1) and Falcons (6-9) are vying for the NFC South crown. The winner moves on to the wild-card round to host a playoff game. Carolina has definitely had an interesting season. Two weeks ago, quarterback Cam Newton was in a car crash, and the Panthers have won three in a row. Carolina has been better defensively of late, and Jonathan Stewart has led an effective rushing attack. This game could come down to a field goal, so I’ll lean to the points with the Panthers.
■ Chicago at Minnesota (-6): It looks like these teams are heading in opposite directions. The Bears are just a mess, and quarterback Jay Cutler most likely will be gone. The Vikings could have a future with coach Mike Zimmer, and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater looked good at times this season. The line is inflated, but not enough to take the Bears, so I’ll pass on this one.
■ San Diego at Kansas City (-1): Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith will miss the finale with a lacerated spleen. Chase Daniel will get the start, and that could spell trouble. The line has rightfully dropped from minus-3 to pick-em at some books. San Diego needs a win to claim the AFC’s final playoff spot. The Chargers are looking for their third consecutive win at Arrowhead Stadium. Even though quarterback Philip Rivers is not 100 percent, he is tough as nails, and I like the Chargers.
■ Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants (-2½): The Giants have won three straight, while the Eagles have lost three in a row to fall out of the playoff picture. Philadelphia pounded Eli Manning and the Giants 27-0 on Oct. 12. At this point of the year, the Giants are playing much better and have not quit on coach Tom Coughlin. Look for a big day from Manning and Odell Beckham Jr., a rookie wideout who is making his mark. I’m on the Giants, especially with the line dropping from 3.
■ Dallas (-4) at Washington: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett knows his team has little chance of getting a first-round bye, so resting quarterback Tony Romo, who has a bad back, and running back DeMarco Murray, who has a broken hand, would be a good idea. I think that’s what Garrett will do. But if Romo and Murray do start, look for them to sit out the second half. The line dropped from minus-6 late in the week. My guess is the Redskins will hang in and play well in their season finale, so for me it’s play the underdog or stay away.
■ New Orleans (-4) at Tampa Bay: With a loss, Tampa Bay gets the first pick in the draft. Would Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota be a perfect fix for the Buccaneers? I think so. The Saints (6-9) have been the most disappointing team in the NFL for me this season, and they hurt my bankroll. New Orleans should come out and finish the season well, but I’m not laying points or putting my money on this team. I’ll pass.
■ St. Louis at Seattle (-12): The Seahawks can lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC by beating the Rams. But St. Louis seems to always play them tough, and the Rams won the first meeting 28-26. I don’t see an upset happening this time, but the Rams will put up a good fight, so I’ll look to take the points.
■ Arizona at San Francisco (-6½): The Cardinals considered turning to Logan Thomas at quarterback, and he can’t be any worse than Ryan Lindley was last week against Seattle. The 49ers are a team of coaches and players who probably have one foot out of the door as they play for nothing. This is another game I’ll avoid.
■ Oakland at Denver (-14): The Broncos attempt to wrap up the No. 2 seed in the AFC and avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time this season. Oakland has won three of five and is looking for its first road win. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr has six touchdown passes and no interceptions in the past three games. The Broncos beat up the Raiders in a 41-17 win on Nov. 9, posting a 471-222 advantage in total yards as Peyton Manning passed for five touchdowns. It should be more of the same here, but I’m not laying two touchdowns.
COMPILED BY MATT YOUMANS