Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)
Like the Packers in the NFC, the Steelers enter this game on a long winning streak, winning 9 straight games to go from 4-5 to 11-5, the 3rd seed in the AFC, 2 playoff wins, and an AFC Championship appearance. However, the Steelers have two big obstacles to overcome if they want to make their 4th Super Bowl in the Ben Roethlisberger era. One, they haven’t been very good on the road this season. Two, they’re facing a New England team that isn’t just the best team in the NFL, but that also has rarely lost at home in recent years, especially against AFC opponents. Since 2010, they are 57-9 at home, including 48-4 against AFC opponents, with one loss coming in a meaningless week 17 game and another coming in a game started by 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brady has lost just two meaningful conference home games in the last 6 seasons, though both came in the playoffs (both against Baltimore).
On the other side, in 7 home starts this season (including playoffs), the Steelers are 6-1, with the one loss coming in a close shootout with the Cowboys and the 6 wins coming by a combined 96 points. In those 7 home games, Roethlisberger completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 115.3. In 9 road games, however, his QB rating is 36.5 points lower. The Steelers are 6-3 in those 9 games, but with a point differential of just +18, as compared to +91 in 7 home games started by Roethlisberger. This home/away split is nothing new for Roethlisberger, as he’s had at least a 15 point disparity in home to road QB rating in 4 of the last 6 seasons, including each of the last 3.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they have arguably the league’s most dangerous weapon, Le’Veon Bell, doing work both as a de facto #2 receiver out of the backfield and as a runner, behind one of the best offensive lines in football. The Patriots were able to keep the Steelers’ run game in check in their first matchup with the Steelers, but that was because Ben Roethlisberger was injured and Landry Jones was starting, enabling the Patriots to stack 8 or 9 guys in the box against Bell on almost every snap. Bell still had a huge game overall, leading the team with 10 catches for 68 yards in what was ultimately a 27-16 home loss for the Steelers. Roethlisberger hasn’t been the same quarterback on the road this season, but he’s an obvious upgrade over Landry Jones, so the Patriots won’t have the luxury of being able to stack the box against Bell as often.
Roethlisberger is also an obvious upgrade over most of the quarterbacks the Patriots have faced in recent weeks. In fact, since Brady’s return, the Patriots have faced Cody Kessler, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson (their one loss), Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, Matt Moore, and Brock Osweiler. That at least calls into question some of the legitimacy of the Patriots’ defense, which finished the regular season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed. It’s concerning that they lost at home to the only even decent offense they’ve faced since trading Jamie Collins.
In fact, 7 of the 9 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other two were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle (19th) who beat them. The Steelers rank 10th, and that’s with Le’Veon Bell missing 3 games, Ben Roethlisberger missing one, and most of the key offensive starters resting in a meaningless week 17 game. Even with Roethlisberger struggling on the road, this is still the toughest offense the Patriots have faced since trading away one of their best defensive players almost 3 months ago.
Fortunately, it’s much tougher to call into question the legitimacy of the Patriots’ offense, which has managed to keep rolling without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, something they haven’t been able to do in recent years, because their running game, offensive line, and complementary pass catchers are all better and healthier than they’ve been in recent years. And, of course, because quarterback Tom Brady is having arguably one of the best seasons of his career. They finished the regular season 8th in first down rate, despite Brady missing 4 games with injury and despite the fact that the defenses they’ve faced are much tougher than the offenses they’ve faced. Baltimore, Seattle, Houston, and Denver all have weak offenses, but they also all have top-8 defenses and the Patriots have had impressive offensive performances in 3 of those 4 games. The Patriots’ offense is much more battle tested than their defense and Pittsburgh’s average stop unit figures to have trouble with them.
Overall, the Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule, as their opponents had the 2nd lowest combined winning percentage of any team’s opponents this season and two of the playoff teams they faced (Pittsburgh and Miami) were using backup quarterbacks when the Patriots faced them. However, at the end of the day, you can only play the teams that are on your schedule and it’s not like the Patriots were squeaking out victories against these teams. Just 4 of their 15 wins have come by 7 points or fewer and two of those were weeks 1 and 2 when Tom Brady was suspended.
Their average margin of victory was 15.47, 16.33 in Brady’s 12 wins. They finished the regular season with a league best +24 offensive touchdown margin (Dallas was second at +just 15) and a league best +191 point differential (Atlanta was second at just +134) and they have the highest first down rate differential of any team left in the playoffs (+6.26 vs. +2.34 for Pittsburgh). So, while the Patriots might not be quite as good as their 15-2 record suggests, they’re probably still the best team in the league.
For that reason, they should be able to win big here at home against a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t been that good on the road this season, but it’s tough to lay 6 points with them confidently. This line was at 5.5 earlier this week and I made a big mistake not locking in that line at the time (expecting the line to possibly go to 4 or 4.5 if the sharps liked Pittsburgh). If 5.5 or lower comes back in the next 24 or so hours before the game, it’s worth a bet, but it would be tough to be confident at 6.
New England Patriots 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 23
Pick against the spread: New England -6