Cincinnati Bengals (2-5-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0)
The Bengals are 2-5-1, while the Steelers are the league’s last remaining unbeaten team at 8-0, but the Bengals have been competitive in most of their games, losing just once by more than a touchdown, while the Steelers haven’t been blowing people out, with just one win by more than 10 points and five wins by one score or less. That’s despite the fact that the Steelers haven’t faced that tough of a schedule, including close contests with the Texans, the Jeff Driskel led Broncos, and the Garrett Gilbert led Cowboys.
Given that both of these teams play a lot of games and that this line is 7, you might think I’m leaning strongly towards the Bengals, but the Bengals are worse than their box scores suggest, as their close losses to the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 8.20% and 5.56% respectively. The Bengals lost to the Colts despite winning the turnover battle and they needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down and get a last second garbage time touchdown to cut it to a single score against the Browns. They’ve also faced a relatively easy schedule and, in total, rank just 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.10%.
The Steelers, meanwhile, rank 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate at +2.22%. They’ve been carried by a defense that ranks 3rd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.21%, while their offense ranks 28th in first down rate over expected at -1.99%, and typically defensive led teams are not as good of bets as offensive led teams because defensive performance is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance, but the Steelers have been one of the best defenses in the league for a year and a half now and, even if they have some regression from their defense going forward, they should be able to more than compensate for it with improved offensive play, as my roster rankings suggest they’ve significantly underperformed their offensive talent this season.
My calculated line is Pittsburgh -9, so we’re getting some line value with the Steelers at -7, and Pittsburgh is also in a good spot, with only an easy game against the Jaguars on deck. Since 2014, favorites of a touchdown or more are 56-31 ATS before being favorites of a touchdown or more again the following week, which the Steelers almost definitely will be again next week. It’s very tough for inferior teams to keep it close with superior teams when the superior team is focused without any upcoming distractions on the schedule. In a normal week, I might consider a bet on Pittsburgh, but with Ben Roethlisberger and others missing practice this week due to control tracing protocols, I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick.
Pittsburgh Steelers 26 Cincinnati Bengals 16
Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -7