Do or Die For Bengals

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

CINCINNATI ON THE ROPES AT 2-5
AS PITTSBURGH VISITS MONDAY NIGHT

When this game was scheduled for a Monday Night showcase before the season started, it was imagined that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would both be fighting with the Baltimore Ravens for first place in the NFC North.

Though, it was possible that Pittsburgh would be in trouble because starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was to miss the first month of action because of suspension. If the Steelers went 0-4 or 1-3 with his backups, maybe they would be off the radar...but they'd represent a fired up divisional foe looking to play spoiler.

Certainly the BENGALS would be okay! They made the playoffs last year, and added Terrell Owens in the offseason to create a dynamic passing attack that would be the scourge of the division, the conference, and the whole league.

Instead, we have:

*Pittsburgh at 5-2, surviving the Roethlisberger absence in fine fashion...but, ironically, struggling once he returned. The Steelers were lucky to beat Miami two weeks ago, and played very poorly offensively last week in New Orleans.

*Cincinnati at 2-5, and playing so badly on offense that nobody's afraid of them. As we've mentioned several times, Carson Palmer still has no arm! He can complete passes and move the ball only against prevent defenses. When under attack, his passes have no zip, and not much accuracy.

With Baltimore also at 5-2, Cincinnati is three games out of first place in its division...or a Wildcard spot if they can't win the division. A loss here basically ends their hopes for a divisional title...and lands what is also probably a fatal blow to Wildcard chances. A victory, and there's still a chance.

The good news for the Bengals is that struggling Pittsburgh is playing its third road game in three weeks. You couldn't hope for a better schedule spot. The bad news? Pittsburgh's defense is terrific...which means Carson Palmer is going to have to lift his game significantly.

We're deep enough into the season now for our Drive Point averages (those scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more) to be meaningful. Let's run our traditional preview statistics for tonight's game. Note that we'll start doing that for every game this Thursday...as the NFL adds Thursday Night's to its schedule for the rest of the season at that time.

DRIVE POINTS (turnover differential and schedule strength)
Pittsburgh: 8.7 on offense, 6.4 on defense (+9 TO's, vs. 3rd ranked schedule)
Cincinnati: 10.1 on offense, 13.6 on defense (+4 TO's vs. 7th ranked schedule)

We have to note that Cincinnati's 10.1 is basically ZILCH when the game is on the line, and a lot of garbage points once they've fallen way behind. They did get stuff on the board at New England and Atlanta with big deficits. Generally, they don't do anything otherwise. They were shut out on long drives by Baltimore and Carolina, and only put up a field goal in a home loss to Tampa Bay.

Defensively, there are obviously problems. Though...some of that is strength of schedule. Cincinnati would probably rank around league average vs. an average schedule.

Pittsburgh offensive numbers are deflated by lacking Roethlisberger for a month, then dealing with his rustiness upon return. You have to take that 8.7 seriously because he sure wasn't up to past standards last week in New Orleans.

But, defensively...Pittsburgh's FANTASTIC! They're allowing only 6.4 Drive Points per game (second in the league entering the weekend to the NY Giants), while facing a very tough schedule.

Our key indicator stats are saying that the offenses are a wash right now (though Pittsburgh will be better as Big Ben gets his sea legs back), while Pittsburgh has a big edge defensively. That's why the Steelers are 5-point road favorites tonight, even playing their third road game in three weeks.

THE CASE FOR CINCY

*It's do or die, so you should get their best effort of the season.

*Pittsburgh has some margin for error, and has to be tired in this schedule sequence. They're going to show up for a divisional game on national TV of course. But, this isn't a wounded animal with its back to the wall. Cincinnati is playing to save its season.

*T.O and Ochocinco love the spotlight. It's been awhile since they've played in a spotlight game. Maybe the lack of national games is one of the hidden reasons these showboats aren't setting the world on fire.

THE CASE FOR PITTSBURGH

*If Cincinnati can't score, it's not hard to cover a 5-point spread! The Bengals offense we've seen most of the time this year will be lucky to get past 10-13 points vs. the Steelers defense we've seen most of the time this year. Handicappers have to determine if that's who will be on the field this evening.

*The Bengals may have emotionally thrown in the towel on the season given their current three-game losing streak. They didn't respond well to the loss in Atlanta last week at home against Miami. If the Dolphins can win by 8 on this field scoring only one TD...Pittsburgh can certainly win by at least that much.

The Under might make some sense if weather is going to be a factor. And it might anyway! Pittsburgh's 20-10 loss in New Orleans last week never got near the total...and needed a late Saints TD just to reach 30. Cincinnati played to a 36 vs. the Dolphins in a day game.

Of course, if the VH1 stars at wide receiver for the Bengals show off for the cameras...that can turn an Under into an Over very easily.

A LOT FOR HANDICAPPERS TO THINK ABOUT TONIGHT!

JIM HURLEY has been thinking long and hard about the game, and has spent time with his scouts...his sources...his stat handicappers...his Monday Night trend historians...his computer programmers, and his Wise Guy connections to find the best option (or options) in this matchup. Thanks to those discussions, he's confident HE'S GOT THE WINNER! He's also spotted something in hoops from the six-game NBA schedule and four-game college basketball opening that will be included for his Monday clients. You can purchase NETWORK'S slate online with your credit card. Or, call the office at 1-800-323-4453 for more details.

Be sure to ask about monthly or seasonal basketball rates when you call. The NBA is already going strong...and the colleges get rolling tonight with big name programs like Pittsburgh, Illinois, Maryland, and Texas taking the floor. Football/Basketball combo's offer your best value.

We'll be back tomorrow to look through some key stats from last weekend's college football action. Wednesday and Thursday will be devoted to the NFL, with Wednesday's NOTEBOOK entry studying our 'big three' stats from this week (Drive Points, Rushing Yardage, and Third Down Conversions), and Thursday marking the return of our standard NFL previews to get you ready for the Baltimore/Atlanta game on the NFL Network. We're still narrowing down what our big-game previews will be for the colleges on Friday and Saturday. Maybe we'll look at South Carolina/Florida for the SEC East crown. Maybe resurgent Penn State at Ohio State. Georgia/Auburn might deserve a look as the Tigers try to run the table and play for a national championship. Races are tightening up all over the map...which means games that you may not have thought were going to be important now suddenly take on a whole new meaning.

Bottom line...you should just be with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY going on in the world of sports! And, link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK for BIG JUICY WINNERS from the man who's been making you BIG MONEY for almost 25 years!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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