(Ben Roethlisberger photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
(Andy Dalton photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Bengals)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
OUR SUNDAY BEST
PITTSBURGH @ CINCINNATI, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Bengals by 3
The story: Consider this Cincinnati’s dress rehearsal for the playoffs.
The Steelers might not make it, but they sure look like a playoff-ready team today. So this is a big game for both sides, and listen up, Bengals’ fans:The Steelers are dangerous, loaded with deep-strike weapons and historically tough for your Bengals to beat. I know, Cincinnati overcame them earlier this season, but the Bengals needed Ben Roethlisberger’s help to pull off a fourth-quarter rally.
But that’s not likely to happen again. Reason: Roethlisberger is healthy, is red hot and plays big in big moments.
Over his last three games, he’s thrown for eight touchdowns and 1199 yards – or an average of nearly 400 per. He’s also 17-7 vs. Cincinnati. But here’s the best news: He’s only been sacked four times in his last four starts and 12 times this season. He’ll need plenty of protection here because the Bengals rank ninth in sacks and fourth in interceptions with 15 – three of which were at Roethlisberger’s expense in October.
That was in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are hard to crack. This isn’t, and beware: The Bengals are 21-4-1 over their last 26 games at Paul Brown Stadium, including 5-1 this season. But that’s not all. The Bengals’ defense is so good that it’s allowed only 27 red-zone penetrations all year, best in the NFL. Plus, Cincinnati leads the league in fewest points allowed. Throw in Andy Dalton, the league’s leading passer; a rushing attack that’s second in TDs; A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert with 19 TDs combined, and you have a complete team.
Now the question: Can it pass the audition?
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Cincinnati is the only team to have two players with eight or more sacks each.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
BUFFALO @ PHILADELPHIA, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Bills by 1
The story: Neither team has a winning record, but there’s plenty of drama here – and most it involves LeSean McCoy. The guy made off-season news with inflammatory comments about Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly and didn't back of this week when he said he wouldn't shake Kelly's hand. Too bad the Eagles shook McCoy. Their running game is a mess today, with McCoy's replacement, DeMarco Murray, complaining to the team owner about his head coach.
Ah, yes, Philadelphia. The city where nobody’s happy unless everyone is miserable.
But credit the Eagles with a huge win last weekend. Beating New England in New England … and at this time of year? Priceless. But face it, people: They’re not a very good football team. Nobody in the NFC East is. Furthermore, they sometimes are an inept football team.
Still, somebody has to win the division, and the Eagles could be that someone. To make it, however, they must stop a motivated McCoy and a Buffalo offense that features a quarterback on target to become the first since Jim Kelly to put up a rating of 100 for the season. If nothing else, the McCoy backstory makes this game interesting. I just want the guy score to see what happens next.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Since the start of the 2014 season, the Eagles’ special teams have been responsible for 10 TDs (four punt returns, four blocked punts returns for scores and two kickoff returns).
ATLANTA @ CAROLINA, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Panthers by 7-1/2
The story: Atlanta is in a downward spiral, and the Panthers can’t lose. So why do we watch? Because sooner or later the Panthers are going down … and it could be here, and it could be next weekend vs. the Giants. Me? I say it’s next weekend, but cut the Falcons slack: They’re the only opponent left on Carolina’s schedule without a losing record.
That’s the good news for Atlanta. Now the bad: They’ve lost six of their last seven, with Matt Ryan prone to repeated mistakes. Now along comes a defense that ranks third overall, second vs. the run and first in takeaways, and what do you have? In all likelihood, 13-0.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Carolina is the sixth team in the last 10 years to start 12-0. The other five all won their next games.
NEW ENGLAND @ HOUSTON, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Patriots by 3
The story: The Texans have defense. The Patriots have Tom Brady. Something has to give, and history says it won’t be Brady. The Patriots haven’t lost three straight since 2002.
Then there’s this: Tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s most dangerous target, returned to practice Thursday. That’s a start. But Brady must have the protection to find him or Danny Amendola, and, lately, that protection hasn’t been there – with Brady treated like a piñata by opposing defenses.
That’s not expected to change here, except … except the game’s best defensive player, J.J. Watt, just turned up with a broken hand. He says he’ll be OK, but let’s see ... because he can't grab with one hand. With him, the Texans have been suffocating opponents lately with defense -- leading the league in third-down stops and allowing 56 points over the last five games, four of which Houston won.
So this one is simple: It’s all about the Houston defense. If it can flummox Brady and force him to get rid of the ball in a hurry, the Texans have a chance. If not, it’s hasta la vista.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Brady completed 68.5 percent of his passes with Gronk and Julian Edelman in the lineup; without them, he’s completing 55.8 percent of his attempts.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
(Ryan Tannehill photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)
N.Y. GIANTS @ MIAMI, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Giants by 1
The story: The Giants stink, and so does Miami. Miami will make a coaching change before next year, and so might the Giants. The Giants are 5-7, and so is Miami.
I think you get the idea. Parity is alive and well on Monday Night Football. The only reason to watch is to see if Big Blue can dig itself out of a hole. They’ve lost three straight and four of their last five to sink to … uh-huh … a three-way tie for first in the NFC East.
And Miami? At some point, the Dolphins must make a decision on where they go next with Ryan Tannehill. I say the next four games determine what happens with a guy who hasn’t had a winning season in four years on the job.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Odell Beckham Jr. aims for his sixth straight 100-yard game. In his last five, he has 36 catches for 630 yards and six TDs.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
(Aaron Rodgers photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
GREEN BAY over DALLAS, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Packers by 7
The story: The Packers have Aaron Rodgers. The Cowboys have Matt Cassel. Check, please.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Cowboys lost their last four overall to Green Bay, including their last three in Lambeau.
(Home team in caps)
Clark Judge. Pittsburgh (+2-1/2) over CINCINNATI. The Steelers have no margin for error, and I trust Big Ben in big games more than I do Andy Dalton.
Ron Borges. Washington (+3-1/2) over CHICAGO. The Redskins stink. But so does Chicago.
Rick Gosselin. HOUSTON (+3) over New England. Pressure creates mistakes, and Brady has six turnovers in his last five games.
FIVE GUYS ON THE HALL-OF-FAME RADAR
Cincinnati WR A.J. Green. In his last four starts vs. Pittsburgh, he averaged 9.8 catches and 129.3 yards. He also had two scores.
Carolina QB Cam Newton. He has a rushing TD and a passing TD in four of his past six games vs. Atlanta. What’s more, he’s won four of his last five against the Falcons.
San Diego TE Antonio Gates. He has 15 career TD catches vs. Kansas City, his most vs. any opponent.
New Orleans QB Drew Brees. He won five of his last six at Tampa Bay and seven of the last eight overall.
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. He won his last three vs. Dallas (including the playoffs), with seven TDs, no interceptions and a passer rating of 116.1.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
Since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978, Super Bowl teams have a combined record of 112-36 during the last four games of their title seasons. What’s more, 28 of those 37 Super Bowl winners (75.7 percent) won at least three of their final four games during those seasons, while 35 of 37 (94.6 percent) won at least two.
The most successful quarterback during the final four regular-season games is not Tom Brady. It’s San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who is 30-6 (.833). Brady is 43-9 (.827).
Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins is the only player in the league with at least five receptions in each game this season.
Baltimore scored the game-winning points in each of its four victories on the final play of the game.
New England is one of four teams not to score a touchdown by defense or special teams this season. Houston has one non-offensive TD.
N.Y. Giants coach Tom Coughlin is 4-0 vs. Miami.
With a victory Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals would clinch a fifth straight playoff berth. That would tie Andy Dalton with Baltimore’s Joe Flacco as the only quarterbacks to lead their teams to the playoffs in their first five seasons.
With 1-1/2 sacks, Houston’s J.J. Watt joins Reggie White as the only players to have 15 or more sacks in three of their first five seasons.
Arizona and Cincinnati are the only teams ranked in the top five in scoring offenses and defenses.
With seven catches vs. Cincinnati, Antonio Brown becomes the sixth player in league history with three consecutive 100-catch seasons.
Mike Tomlin’s next victory is his 90th during the regular season, making Pittsburgh the only team with three coaches with 90 regular-season wins apiece. The others are Chuck Noll (193) and Bill Cowher (149).