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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals: Storylines, prediction in another crucial AFC North encounter

What is our prediction for this Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals matchup, and what are the storylines that will shape the game?

This Week 12 Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals matchup has a lot of intriguing elements to it when it comes to predicting how it might go. Let’s take a look at the main storylines for this Week 12 bout between the Steelers and Bengals before making a prediction for how it may turn out.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals Prediction | Storylines for Week 12

The AFC North has had more twists and turns than a mountain road this season. After Week 4, the Steelers were languishing at the bottom with a 1-3 record, while the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals were riding high at 3-1. In Week 7, the Bengals laid down a marker with a comprehensive victory over the Ravens to leave both teams at 5-2 with the Browns at 4-3 and the Steelers at 3-3.

In Week 10, the Steelers had the opportunity to take the lead in the division but could only muster a tie with the winless Detroit Lions. Now heading into Week 12, the four teams all play each other in what could be a crucial week. The Ravens are atop the division with a 7-3 record, the Bengals sit second at 6-4, the Steelers are at 5-4-1, and the Browns are bringing up the rear at 6-5.

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The range of outcomes this week is wide. If the Bengals and Ravens both win, they open up a solid lead over their two rivals. Even better for the Bengals, a victory for them would see them completing a 2-0 sweep over the Steelers and give them a 3-1 record within the division.

With all four teams right in the mix, the AFC North looks set for another roller-coaster week. Let’s take a look at the storylines that will shape our prediction for the Steelers at Bengals Week 12 matchup.

Can Ben Roethlisberger lead the Steelers to the playoffs?

This season has been one of two halves so far for Ben Roethlisberger. Through the first four weeks, the statistics suggest he did not perform particularly well. Big Ben had an average passer rating of just below 80 during that stretch. He threw 4 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, including three games below that mark.

Pro Football Network’s Offensive Value Metric, which uses Next Gen Stats to grade QBs based on factors within their control, further demonstrates that Roethlisberger was providing below-average value to his offense compared to his position. During those first four weeks, Roethlisberger’s OVM was on average 15% lower than the rest of the quarterbacks in the league.

However, things have turned around for Roethlisberger since Week 5. His passer rating has been 94.7 or above in all five games he has played, and over 100 three times. He has not thrown an interception in that stretch, has thrown 9 touchdowns, and is averaging 7.1 yards per pass attempt.

The advanced metrics reinforce his improvement. During this five-game stretch, Roethlisberger has been on average 12% more valuable than the average at the position during that time. He has provided above-average value within his environment in four of the five games he has played since Week 5. With the defense struggling with injuries, the Steelers need Roethlisberger at his best to make the playoffs in the AFC.

Can the Steelers’ defense make the difference in this game?

There is a lot of good news for the Steelers’ defense this week. Minkah Fitzpatrick looks set to return from the reserve/COVID-19 list, and T.J. Watt is not carrying an injury designation into the game. The only thing stopping them from being essentially at full strength is the absence of Joe Haden.

This season has not been the type of campaign we would expect from a Steelers defense. While defensive success is hard to predict year to year, Pittsburgh having an above-average unit has usually been a fairly safe bet in the past 20 seasons. In terms of points allowed, they are the 12th-best unit, but they rank 22nd in yards allowed.

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Where they are not making their usual impact is in the turnover column. Turnovers are extremely hard to predict, but this unit ranked first in turnovers in 2019 (including second in interceptions) and second in 2020. This season, however, the Steelers are currently 26th in the league in both turnovers and interceptions.

Part of the issue is that they are not getting consistent pressure. Their 25.3% pressure rate ranks 14th in the league, while their hurry rate ranks 11th (11.2%). Against a Bengals offensive line that is questionable in pass protection, this would be a great week for them to start changing those turnover numbers if they want to give their offense a chance to hang with the explosive Cincinnati offense.

Can the Bengals show that Week 11 was not a fluke?

Heading into their Week 10 bye, the Bengals had two of their worst weeks of the entire season. After Week 7, the Bengals were 5-2, sitting atop the AFC North with their two losses coming by a combined 6 points, including an overtime defeat to the Packers. Then they lost to Mike White and the Jets in Week 8, allowing 34 points in the process.

Initially, that loss seemed like a simple mental lapse. After a statement win against the Ravens, surely Cincinnati had simply dropped their concentration levels and paid for it. After all, it was only the second time this season they’d allowed 25 points or more and the first allowing over 30.

Unfortunately, they backed that up with a 41-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns at home. They turned the ball over 3 times and managed to be outscored by 25 points while only being outgained by 13 yards. It was a bizarre game that saw the Browns score 3 touchdowns of 60 or more yards, including a 99-yard pick-six.

Yet, a 32-13 victory over the Raiders was exactly what they needed coming out of the bye. Bengals stifled the Raiders’ offense, controlled the time of possession, and won despite losing the turnover count and having just 10 yards more. What Cincinnati now needs to prove is that that victory was not a fleeting sign of life. Beating the Steelers at home in a confident manner would send a real message to the rest of the AFC North.

Steelers at Bengals betting line and game prediction

The Bengals being 3.5-point favorites feels very reflective of what happened the last time these two teams played. However, the fact it isn’t higher demonstrates the uncertainty sportsbooks have over both these rosters. The Steelers scored 37 points last week and nearly stole the game in Los Angeles, while the Bengals won but were hardly convincing when you look at the box score.

This game looks set to come down to whichever defense plays better. If the Steelers’ defense plays at the level we know they can, they have a great chance to create a surprise. If Roethlisberger plays at the level he has in recent weeks, he can elevate this offense enough to cause the Bengals’ defense trouble.

The Bengals were not convincing last week, even in a big victory. Burrow averaged just 5.1 yards per pass attempt, and Joe Mixon was only fractionally over 4 yards per rush attempt. It was their ability to convert on 50% of third downs that allowed them to control the game last week. This week, they face a Steelers defense that ranks seventh in third-down conversion rate allowed and fourth in red-zone conversion rate allowed.

The Steelers have a great chance to keep themselves in the race for the AFC North with an upset win. It may not be a comfortable contest, but Pittsburgh to cover or win narrowly is the pick here.

Steelers vs. Bengals prediction: Steelers 27, Bengals 24

Ben Rolfe is a Senior Managing Editor at Pro Football Network and is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can find him on Twitter @BenRolfePFN.

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