The AFC North has been a rollercoaster this whole season, but after Cincinnati's upset of Kansas City, we finally have some clarity. The Bengals secured the AFC North championship, and in doing so eliminated the Cleveland Browns from playoff contention. Just because the Browns now have zero chance of advancing beyond the regular season doesn't mean they have nothing to play for. They have the opportunity to spoil Ben Roethlisberger's farewell game at Heinz Field and mathematically eliminate the Steelers from playoff contention. On the other hand, Pittsburgh can make Big Ben's final home game one to remember and give themselves something to play for in Week 18.
Week 17 Monday Night Football, with odds provided by DraftKings Sportsbook:
Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Line: Pittsburgh (-2.5)
Pittsbugh's Last Chance: Pittsburgh can still make the playoffs, but after a brutal Sunday slate where essentially every outcome they hoped for went the other way, their statistical likelihood of making the playoffs fell to a mere 2.5% chance. Pittsburgh needs to win this week, beat Baltimore in Week 18 on the road, and additionally have Jacksonville defeat Indianapolis. That's asking a lot, but at the end of the day this is the NFL and crazier things have happened. More importantly, this game will be remembered for one reason and one reason only: Big Ben's last game in Pittsburgh. The NFL is not a fairytale story where everybody gets a happy ending unfortunately, and Pittsburgh is going to have to earn every bit of this win. Coming into this one, they have the 30th ranked rush defense, and the 28th ranked run defenses and in the NFL if you can't win the battle in the trenches, it's very hard to win ball games. Still, the reason Pittsburgh is in the position they are today is because they find ways to win close games - sitting at 7-2-1 in one possession games. You can view this as either Pittsburgh has gotten very lucky this year, or that they have a Hall of Fame head coach and quarterback that have proven time and time again they know how to win close football games. I choose to believe the latter. It also doesn't hurt that they had T.J. Watt put up 17.5 sacks in 13 games.
What to make of Cleveland: I think Cleveland has been the most disappointing team this year in football. In the offseason, people were predicting them to face Kansas City in the AFC championship... fast forward five months and they may finish last in their division with no major injuries. On paper, the Browns should win this game with ease. They have a top five offensive line, the second ranked run game, and ridiculous amounts of talent across their roster. Unfortunately for Cleveland, football isn't a game played on paper. Pittsburgh won their previous match up earlier this season 15-10 in an old school, divisional game. If Cleveland is able to get out to an early lead and establish the run, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt may be too much for a poor Pittsburgh run defense to handle. On the other hand, if Cleveland trails early, I wouldn't feel too good about Baker Mayfield playing hero ball if I was a Cleveland fan.
Final Thoughts: This game feels like it's going to come down to who wants it more, and with the emotion that will be in Pittsburgh I think everybody in a black and gold uniform will be playing extra hard for their quarterback that has delivered two Super Bowls to the city of Pittsburgh. Sometimes in gambling you have to rely on analytics, and sometimes you have to rely on atmosphere, energy, and passion. Pittsburgh is going to be an absolutely electric stadium tonight, and in between the third and fourth quarters when Renegade plays and the terrible towels start waving everywhere, it's going to be hard to bet against these guys. Tomlin and Big Ben and proven they are capable of winning games they shouldn't, tonight will be one of those nights.
Game Prediction: Pittsburgh 24 - 21
Official pick: Pittsburgh (-2.5)
Follow Jason Oppler on Twitter - @JayOppler
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