New England Patriots (10-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)
This is the biggest regular season game of the year in the AFC, and possibly in the entire NFL. These two teams are the only real contenders for the #1 seed in the AFC and the winner of this game effectively gains two games in the standings because they’d own the tiebreaker. If the Steelers win, they move up 2 games in the standings over the Patriots with 2 games left to go and they would own the tiebreaker, eliminating the Patriots from contention for the #1 seed and, depending on what happens with the Jaguars earlier in the day, possibly clinching the #1 seed for themselves. The Patriots, meanwhile, would move into a tie with the Steelers with a win and they’d own the tiebreaker, meaning they’d clinch the #1 seed if they won their remaining two games, which are easy home divisional games against the Bills and Jets.
Both teams had disappointing performances last week in primetime games, as they were understandably a little flat with this game on deck. The Steelers needed a late comeback to win at home over the Ravens by 1, while the Patriots couldn’t quite mount a comeback in an eventual 27-20 loss in Miami to the Dolphins. That comeback by the Steelers is the difference in the standings between these two teams right now, but that doesn’t matter a whole lot, considering both teams still control their own path to the #1 seed. This game will more than likely decide who gets homefield advantage throughout the AFC and homefield advantage in what could easily be a rematch of this game in the AFC Championship game.
Despite the fact that the Steelers currently lead in the standings, I trust the Patriots to bounce back off of last week’s disappointing performance a lot more. Part of that is because they get tight end Rob Gronkowski back from suspension, but it is primarily because bouncing back is what they’ve typically done in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. They are 46-24 ATS off of a loss since Belichick took over in 2000, including 37-18 ATS in games started by Tom Brady. They’ve also only lost back-to-back games 5 times in the last 8 seasons.
They’ve typically done well in big games against tough opponents too. With Tom Brady at quarterback, they are a ridiculous 33-12 (35-10 ATS) in games against teams who have a better record than them. That’s a winning percentage of 74.4%, while the league average in that situation is 38.2%. Those aren’t just a bunch of early season games against teams with fluky records either, as they are 14-6 (16-4 ATS) in those type of games in week 10 or later. The Patriots are also close to an auto-bet in games where they basically just need to win to cover, as they’ve gone 48-21 ATS in Tom Brady’s starts as underdogs or favorites of less than 3, including a ridiculous 20-2 ATS off of a loss.
On top of that, the Patriots also happen to be the better team, despite Pittsburgh having the better record at 11-2. The Steelers have had a lot of close calls on the road to 11-2. In fact, their last 3 wins have come by a combined 8 points, even though they were big favorites in all 3 games (at home vs. Green Bay, at Cincinnati, at home vs. Baltimore). On the season, they are 7-1 in games decided by 7 points or fewer and they rank just 9th in point differential at +69. They could easily be 8-5 or 9-4 right now and they’re even worse than that suggests because they are without key linebacker Ryan Shazier for the season with a spine injury.
It’s no surprise that their defense played by far their worst game of the season in their first game without him last week when they allowed 38 points at home to the Ravens. They also struggled without him after he got hurt the week before against the Bengals. They may get top cornerback Joe Haden back from a 4-game absence with a leg fracture, which would be a big boost to this secondary, but that’s far from a guarantee and he may not be at 100% even if he does play.
The Patriots are a clear step up offensively from those the Bengals and the Ravens and have torched the Steelers over the years. Tom Brady is 10-2 in his career against Pittsburgh and not much has changed scheme wise defensively for the Steelers over the years so I would expect more of the same, especially with Shazier out. The Patriots should easily win this one by a field goal or more, so this is my Pick of the Week. I locked this in at -2.5 earlier in the week, but I still would like the Patriots a lot at -3.
New England Patriots 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 27
Pick against the spread: New England -2.5
Confidence: Pick of the Week