Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5) at New England Patriots (6-2)
The Steelers once again came up flat as non-divisional road favorites last week, losing in Oakland, a situation they are now 6-18 ATS since Mike Tomlin took over in 2007. However, I was actually impressed with them. Another loss on their record doesn’t help their playoff chances, but, result aside, they were easily the better team in that matchup. If it wasn’t for a breakdown on a fluke touchdown run by Terrelle Pryor (the longest in NFL history by a quarterback) and two missed field goals that easily could have been made, they might have won that game by 7-10 points. They had more first downs (20 to 13), fewer punts (8 to 7), and fewer turnovers (3 to 2).
They’re moving the chains at a 73% rate, as opposed to 72% for their opponents. Record aside, they’re not playing a whole lot worse than the Patriots. While the Steelers rank 15th in rate of moving the chains, the Patriots rank 14th, moving the chains at a below average 72% rate and relying on a solid defense, which is allowing opponents to move the chains at a 71% rate. Football Outsiders agrees, as they have the Patriots 13th in DVOA, while the Steelers are 16th. The Patriots have been overly reliant on winning close games (4-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less), winning the turnover battle (+7), recovering fumbles (63.6%), and playing an easy schedule (only 2 games against teams ranked in the top-16 of my Power Rankings).
It needs to be said. Tom Brady looks more like a former 6th round pick than a 3-time Super Bowl winner this year. Pro Football Focus grades him out as the 24th ranked passing quarterback out of 37 eligible. He is completing 55.7% of his passes for an average of 5.9 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, good for a QB rating of 74.9, which ranks 27th, right between Chad Henne and Carson Palmer. South Park portrayed him very accurately this week when they suggested he was playing like he took a bunch of laxatives. He could definitely get better by the end of the season and he’s proven in the past it isn’t wise to bet against him in the long-term, but in the short-term, I have no problem with doing it as long as the public doesn’t realize how bad he’s playing, inflating the line. While I don’t doubt it could happen, I’ll have to see him improve to believe it at this point.
I thought it would get better when Rob Gronkowski returned, but in his 2nd game back Brady completed 13 of 22 for 116 yards, 1 touchdown, and an interception against a weak Miami defense and really didn’t look good. They won by 10 on the strength of their defense, which will get better with Aqib Talib expected to return this week, but they, by no means, deserve to be favored by 7 points here. Remember, they are still missing Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork. Their defense still isn’t at full stretch. We’re getting at least 3 points of line value with the Steelers, if not more.
They’ve been even better since the bye. Over the past three weeks they have 53 first downs to 14 punts and 3 turnovers (a 76% rate), as opposed to 50 first downs, 18 punts, and 5 turnovers for their opponents (a 68% rate). They’ll be underrated going forward, as they are here. Their once again dominant defense should be able to shut down the stumbling Patriots’ offense. The Steelers had a big problem with turnovers early in the season (-11), but, as turnover margins normally do, they’ve improved since the bye (+2) and they could improve even more going forward as they are still recovering fumbles at just a 23.5% rate, which won’t continue. They’ve also gotten guys back from injury and are overall just playing better since the bye.
They’re also in a great spot here, as a result of last week’s loss. Teams are 96-55 ATS since 2008 as road underdogs off of a road loss, a trend that covers at about a 65% rate historically, no matter what year you use as a cutoff for your sample size. They’ll also be completely focused with a home game against the Bills next week. Since 2008, non-divisional road underdogs are 97-61 ATS before being non-divisional home favorites.
The Patriots will also be completely focused, going into their bye, which is the only reason why this isn’t a Pick of the Week for Pittsburgh. Teams are 39-14 as home favorites of 7 or more since 2002. However, I think the fact that the Patriots definitely don’t deserve to be favored by 7 cancels that out a little bit. Besides, there are places they are 6.5 point favorites so it’s not like they’re a consensus 7 point favorite, for whatever that matters. As long as I can get Pittsburgh at +7, this is a high confidence pick.
New England Patriots 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 16
Pick against spread: Pittsburgh +7