We’ve had some very interesting matchups so far in Week 15. The Eagles and Cardinals displayed what the NFL might look like in the next generation. Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts put on an absolute show with their passing skill and athleticism, and the Cardinals’ ultimately pulled out an exciting victory.
The Chiefs and Saints also played in a Super Bowl LV preview, although it didn’t exactly live up to the hype. The Saints were able to close the final margin to just three points, but the Chiefs were never really in jeopardy of losing the game.
Finally, the Browns and Giants played on Sunday Night Football with plenty at stake. The Browns needed a win to keep pace in the AFC Wildcard race after the Colts, Titans, Dolphins, and Ravens all won earlier in the day, and a win for the Giants would have put them back in first place in the NFC East. The Browns were ultimately able to get the job done vs. Colt McCoy, and Baker Mayfield continued to remind people why he was considered a future star as a rookie.
Unfortunately, tonight’s game is not nearly as important.
The Steelers will head to Cincinnati as massive favorites vs. the Bengals, and both teams have already sealed their fates this season. Pittsburgh has already locked up a spot in the playoffs, while the Browns will be picking near the top of the NFL draft. The Steelers are still playing for seeding, but that’s the only thing at stake.
However, that doesn’t mean we can’t bet on it. Let’s break this contest down to try and identify some potential betting value.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-14.5) @ Cincinnati Bengals — 40.0 total
Moneylines: Steelers -1000/Bengals +670
The first thing we need to address in this contest is the spread. This is an absolutely massive line considering that the Bengals are at home. There have only been 10 road favorites of greater than 14 points dating back to 2006, but two of those have come this season. Ravens failed to cover as 14.5-point road favorites vs. Washington — they won by “only” 14 points — while the Saints demolished the Broncos in Denver as 17-point favorites. If you don’t remember that game, it’s the one where the Broncos were forced to use a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback.
You might think that these teams have done poorly — road favorites have the reputation for being “square” bets — but these teams have actually crushed. They’ve gone 8-2 against the spread in those contests, covering by an average of 8.75 points. That’s good for a return on investment of 59%, albeit over a small sample size.
So can the Steelers take care of business in this spot? Even though most teams have fared well as massive road favorites, Ben Roethlisberger has struggled in those spots throughout his career. He’s just 7-14 against the spread when favored by more than a touchdown on the road, although he’s never been favored by this much.
The Steelers have also played some of their worst football recently. They started the season 11-0, but they dropped each of their past two games to fall to 11-2. That’s still good enough for the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but only the top seed gets a bye this season. That honor now belongs to the Chiefs, who seem unlikely to relinquish it any time soon.
The majority of their struggles have come on the offensive side of the ball. They have been absolutely horrendous on the ground recently. They’ve logged 68 yards or fewer in six of their past seven games, and they’ve averaged just 54.3 yards per game over that time frame. No team has averaged less than 86.2 rushing yards per game on the season, so they have been way below average. Overall, they 30th in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA in 2020.
There was some hope that James Conner returning to the lineup would help them last week vs. the Bills, but that clearly wasn’t the case. Conner racked up just 18 yards on 10 carries, and the rest of the running backs weren’t any better.
That’s left Ben Roethlisberger to shoulder most of the offensive load. He started the year hot, posting 7.57 adjusted yards per attempt through his first nine games, but he’s dipped to just 5.03 adjusted yards per attempt over his past four. He’s also thrown more interceptions over the past four games (five) than he did through his first nine (four).
Hopefully the Bengals will be the perfect medicine for this ailing offense. They have been dreadful defensively this season, ranking just 30th in defensive DVOA, and they have been particularly vulnerable against the run. They rank 31st in rush defense DVOA, so if the Steelers can’t get their ground game going in this contest, it may never happen.
Roethlisberger should also find plenty of success when he goes to the air. The Bengals are slightly better in terms of pass defense, but they still rank just 26th in that department. Roethlisberger torched this team back in Week 10, racking up 333 passing yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
That said, the biggest mismatch in this game comes on the other side of the ball. The Steelers have one of the best pass rushes in football, and the Bengals are one of the worst teams in terms of pass protection. They rank 27th in adjusted sack rate against, and playing behind that unit lead to a devastating knee injury for Joe Burrow. The No. 1 overall pick from the 2020 draft showed plenty of flashes this season, so hopefully he can make a speedy recovery.
The Bengals won’t even have their backup quarterback for this contest. Brandon Allen was also injured playing behind this line, so it’s now Ryan Finley’s turn to fear for his life. Finley does have some mobility — he ran a 4.73 40-yard dash, which puts him in the 77th percentile for quarterbacks — but he simply has no chance against the Steelers’ defensive front.
The Bengals’ offense has been anemic with Allen under center over the past three games, so it will be interesting to see if Finley will be a downgrade. That’s hard to imagine — Allen averaged just 5.7 adjusted yards per attempt — but the numbers suggest it will be. Finley has posted an 0-3 record as a starter, and he’s averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt in those starts. He’s been even worse when thrust into relief this season, throwing two interceptions and zero touchdowns over 19 attempts. Things could get ugly quick in this matchup.
Unsurprisingly, the public wants absolutely nothing to do with the Bengals and their third-string quarterback. They’ve garnered just 35% of the early betting tickets.
However, those tickets have actually accounted for 87% of the spread dollars, which suggest some sharp activity on the Bengals. That said, it does look like there’s been some buy-back on the Steelers recently, with five separate steam moves tracked on Pittsburgh over the past two days. That coincides with Finley being declared the starter, so it’s possible that the sharps are scared off by his poor track record.
One thing that the Bengals have going for them is that large divisional underdogs have historically been solid investments. Teams getting at least 7.5 points have historically posted a record of 234-192-8 against the spread in divisional contests, resulting in a return on investment of 5.5%. That’s a solid number in NFL betting, but it’s not strong enough to consider blindly backing the Bengals.
Overall, I’m going to trust the recent activity from the sharps and back the Steelers. Finley is in contention for worst quarterback to start a game in 2020, and the Steelers defense should overwhelm him. I don’t think I actually play them at such a large number, but I think they’re the correct side.
The Pick: Pass