Cleveland Browns (2-4-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2-1)
Going into the season, the Browns were high on my underrated teams list. Despite going winless in 2017, they were just 6th worst in first down rate differential at -3.45% and their -28 turnover margin was highly unlikely to continue with a completely new quarterback situation. The Browns have been a bit disappointing this year though. Their turnover margin has done a 180, as they rank 1st in the NFL with a +10 turnover margin, but despite that they are just 2-4-1 and have a -26 point differential. Their first down rate differential is just -5.48%, 30th in the NFL, actually worse than last season, and their turnover margin could easily regress going forward.
Their defense has been solid, ranking 12th in first down rate allowed at 35.50%, but they are without talented every down linebacker Joe Schobert with injury and their offense has been terrible, ranking 30th in first down rate at 30.02%, only ahead of the Cardinals and Bills. Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield won the starting job with one good half against the Jets when they didn’t gameplan for him on a short week, but he’s seemingly gotten worse every week and Hue Jackson’s offensive coaching staff seems incapable of turning him around. At this point, it might be best for the Browns to go back to their original plan of starting Tyrod Taylor and letting Mayfield develop behind the scenes as a rookie, but they’ve given no indication that that’s something they are considering.
The Browns are also in a tough spot with a home game against the AFC leading Chiefs on deck, a game in which they are 7-point home underdogs on the early line. Teams are just 30-55 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 6+, as big upcoming home games tend to be a distraction for teams. Underdogs of 6+ are also just 46-66 ATS before being underdogs of 6+ again, as it’s tough for inferior teams to keep up with superior teams when they have another tough game on deck.
Despite all of that, I actually like the Browns this week as 8-point underdogs in Pittsburgh. As bad of a spot as the Browns are in, they won’t overlook the Steelers, while Pittsburgh is also in a terrible spot of their own, with a trip to Baltimore on deck. Teams are just 16-34 ATS since 2008 as divisional home favorites before being divisional road underdogs the following week. The Steelers are also an overrated team that has just 6 wins by more than a touchdown since the start of last season (23 games) and just 3 wins by more than a touchdown since the midway of last season (15 games). They are also missing key right tackle Marcus Gilbert with injury. The Browns should be able to keep this one close enough to cover.
Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Cleveland Browns 19
Pick against the spread: Cleveland +8