“It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end.”
“The End” (c) The Doors, 1967
Indeed, the end of the 2021 regular season is almost upon us. For some, it can’t arrive too soon; fans in Baltimore and Cleveland are undoubtedly weary after a couple of months of “will they or won’t they make the playoffs” speculation. The Steelers are clinging to the slimmest of playoff hopes, as are the Ravens (although to call their chances infinitesimal would be generous); the outcome of their game may or may not matter per the dozens of bewildering tiebreaking scenarios being kicked around the sports web this week. The only team confident enough to rest some of their starters is the Bengals, who, not coincidentally, remain the only AFC North team to officially secure a playoff berth. The rest are…well…fighting for scraps, in whatever form they may take.
Repent now or soon at least, for the end is, like, nigh. Yeah.
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.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) @ Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Sunday, January 9, 1:00 pm, CBS
You may or may not be aware that this game is expected to be Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger’s last as an NFL player. After 18 non-losing seasons, “Big” Ben has apparently decided to hang ’em up, seemingly content to ride off into the sunset with his two Super Bowl rings and his place in Canton assured on the first ballot, but there’s the small matter of his lone remaining game against arguably his team’s biggest rival. Rest assured Roethlisberger would like nothing more than to beat back the Ravens Sunday, but the football product he’s bringing with him, as discussed in this space all season, is flawed in many fundamental ways, particularly the offensive line. Recent COVID-19 subtractions from the Steelers include starting WR Diontae Johnson, starting C Kendrick Green, and starting CB Joe Haden, the absence of which will make a win in Baltimore that much tougher. It’s doubtful this game will look much different than any of Pittsburgh’s thus far – a fair amount of rushing attempts and a LOT of short passes and screens to keep Roethlisberger clean and upright.
Just guesswork, but I think the Ravens are probably exhausted, emotionally and physically. Eleven of their 16 games were decided by 6 points or less, win or lose. Three were decided in overtime. Whatever accolades or barbs you wish to saddle the Ravens with, there’s no denying their ability to keep viewers interested, even though the end result may be problematic for fans at times.
This game should be interesting as well.
The Ravens may or may not start QB Lamar Jackson, sidelined for the last three weeks with an ankle injury. Backup QB Tyler Huntley has played reasonably well in Jackson’s absence; he may have inadvertently shown Jackson what’s required to beat a blitz, as Jackson’s game is glaringly inefficient in that area. Regardless, the Ravens will score a few points with either player starting; it’s a matter of establishing consistency and finishing drives, something the team has struggled with the latter half of the season. The running game, such as it is, will have to be more than serviceable this week to take the pressure off whoever lines up behind center.
Key points for the Steelers: Pass the ball. All day. Don’t bother rushing, as the Ravens cover that pretty well. Passing takes advantage of the worst secondary in the NFL statistically and remains the most viable way for the Steelers to win this game.
Key points for the Ravens: Survive. Pray. Don’t put yourselves at injury risk. Worry about continuity from play to play. And protect whoever starts at QB from the clutches of the probable DPoY, LB T.J. Watt, who will undoubtedly be frothing at the mouth to collect a few more sacks towards the single-season record (22.5 currently – Watt has 21.5). It’s a tall order to be sure.
Steelers 22, Ravens 25
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) @ Cleveland Browns (7-9)
Sunday, January 9, 1:00 pm, Fox
The riding-out-the-string Browns remain the only team to truly embarrass the AFC North-winning, also riding-out-the-string Bengals this season, having handed them a 41-16 loss in Cincinnati in Week 9. Needless to say, the stakes for this game are entirely different, as one team has clinched, while the other has been officially eliminated from playoff contention. Both starting QBs will not play; Browns QB Baker Mayfield due to injury/surgery on his torn labrum, and Bengals QB Joe Burrow to rest his ailing right knee and pinky finger for the playoffs. Hard to see how this one generates much local interest in either Cleveland or Cincinnati; it has the aura of “just get it over with” hanging over it in many ways.
Bengals backup QB Brandon Allen has started a few games over his career, including a late-season dismantling of the Steelers last season, so the Bengals feel pretty confident he’ll be able to step in for Burrow. It should be noted the Bengals will likely be missing several players due to COVID-19, including RB Joe Mixon, S Vonn Bell, DE Trey Hendrickson, C Trey Hopkins and G Quinton Spain. Given that and the presence of Allen at QB, the Browns should concentrate on rushing the passer against a weakened line and backfield. It just might work this week, but given the continued presence of Bengals WRs Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, the Browns should still be wary of the short passing game.
The Browns will again turn to veteran QB Case Keenum to start in Mayfield’s stead, and depending on the injury status of RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, he may have to do more than just hand the ball off. Head coach Kevin Stefanski has made some dubious coaching decisions lately, and his offensive playcalls have proven confusing to several members of the offense, including Mayfield when healthy. Should the Browns discover their passing attack, this could be an entertaining game, but any hopes for a Browns win, as always, ride on the powerful legs of Chubb, whose availability Sunday is still technically in question.
Bengals 17, Browns 24
Author’s Note: Thanks for hanging out this year. In a decidedly weird time, it’s fun to provide content and chat space for one of the few constants this and every season – YOU. Go easy, have a drink on me, and I’ll see ya in the playoffs.