Welcome back and all that. Each week, I’ll post a quick writeup of pending AFC North games, with a few notable points and, yes, timely, knowledgeable predictions regarding the games’ outcomes.
Thanks for sticking with me this season. It’s been a weird, challenging year on all fronts, but nothing is as daunting as picking Week 17 winners when rosters are in flux, either by COVID-19 or by design. So bear with me.
As usual, these picks are for fun and should in no way be used for actual wagering purposes. That is, unless you want to make a ton of money in a legal forum, because we know more stuff and things about football than you do or something.
Baltimore Ravens @ Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday, January 3, 1:00 pm, CBS
Oh, those plucky Bengals. Given their shared history, surely the Ravens didn’t want to see this particular opponent in Week 17, with a playoff berth potentially at stake. Add the fact the Bengals have won their last two games, including one of the largest upsets of the season over the Steelers, and this game becomes doubly intriguing.
Well, not really.
This just doesn’t feel like a game the Bengals can win. The Ravens have been playing for a wild card berth for over a month and seem to be infusing everything they do with a sense of urgency. QB Lamar Jackson is no longer deliberating in a dwindling pocket about his receiving options; instead, he’s looked decisive and in command, even on broken plays that force him to move. Rookie RB J.K. Dobbins has officially become the Ravens’ featured rusher, having displaced Mark Ingram II as the starter in a long-expected move. While the Ravens’ receiving options remain limited, Jackson’s recent unpredictable play is managing to find them at opportune times, as the Ravens sport the best red zone conversion percentage in the NFL and are near the top in third down conversions. That’s a lot for a middling Bengals defense to have to cover, so expect the Bengals to deploy the same defensive set that has given Baltimore the biggest fits – an intermediate zone, with a spy on Jackson. If the Bengals manage to remain disciplined, this strategy has a chance of working…albeit a small one.
The Bengals will employ their best run/pass balance with veteran RB Gio Bernard and surprising QB Brandon Allen, who pocketed the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his superlative effort against the Texans last Sunday. The Ravens are expected to get most of their hobbled secondary back on the field this week, so it’s doubtful Allen will see the same opportunities, but it bears watching.
I have a hunch no starters will be benched.
Browns games matter: Ravens 28, Bengals 3
Me: Ravens 31, Bengals 13
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns
Sunday, January 3, 1:00 pm, CBS
The demotion of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger this week has been widely reported; backup QB Mason Rudolph will make his first start since last year’s uninspiring and ultimately fruitless efforts in a relief role. Given “Big” Ben’s age, this benching is surely no surprise, but one has to note how poorly Roethlisberger has played the last month, with the only real exception being his most recent half of football in a comeback effort. The ritual of benching starters in Week 17 is always hotly debated, but perhaps the Steelers should’ve erred on the side of competence over rest this time. Time will tell, I suppose.
As of this writing, the Browns are in a conundrum regarding their roster and game plan, as several players, including their starting WR corp and two starting offensive linemen remain isolated in COVID-19 protocols. Their game-time status remains unknown as all potential cases were assessed/removed prior to last weeks’ game, but given more positive tests in the Browns facility this morning, it obviously is still a paramount concern. At full strength, this would appear to be an easy win for the Browns, but as we’ve seen, these sudden COVID-19 personnel shifts can ruin projections and stat lines brutally and mercilessly.
Assuming the Browns have a stocked offense to play with, they’ll go about their usual game plan of rushing RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt often against a suddenly-suspect Steelers defense that’s had real trouble containing the run lately, and using the resulting play-action sets to get the ball to efficient, high-percentage targets in WRs Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. The Steelers will most likely counter with increased run coverage, which is why the availability of the Browns’ WRs is paramount – we saw the inability of the Browns’ backup WRs to get open in limited looks last week, and the results were *ahem* less than stellar.
The Steelers will probably use a simple game plan with limited motion sets and maximum protections to ease Rudolph’s transition and keep him upright. While the Pittsburgh running game has been non-existent at times this season, it will have to show up against the Browns in order for Rudolph to establish any sort of success. If not, the Browns will undoubtedly send Rudolph nemesis DE Myles Garrett after him all day to force mistakes and turnovers. Given Rudolph’s history of producing both, that should be a scary proposition.
Browns games matter: Steelers 16, Browns 20
Me: Steelers 13, Browns 27
Thanks again for the readership, and Happy New Year!
See y’all in the playoffs.