Buffalo Bills (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)
The Bills only lost by a touchdown at home last week to the AFC leading Ravens and they even had a shot to tie the game at the end, getting stopped on 4th down on the Ravens’ 18-yard line to end the game, but the Bills weren’t quite as competitive in that game as the end result suggests. The Ravens held a 15 point lead into the middle of the 4th quarter and won the first down rate battle by 10.59%. The Ravens had more first downs (18 to 16) and more offensive touchdowns (3 to 1), despite running 9 fewer offensive plays (68 to 59). The Bills’ defense was impressive in holding the Ravens to just 4.4 yards per play, but their offense managed a pathetic 3.1 yards per play.
Even with last week’s game against the now 12-2 Ravens included, the Bills are still tied with the Jets for the easiest schedule in the NFL at 42% and they haven’t fared well against average or better opponents. In their 6 matchups against opponents that are currently 6-7 or better, they are just 2-4 with a -2.18% first down rate differential, as opposed to 7-0 with a +6.28% first down rate differential in their other 7 games (combined opponents record of 22-70).
With that in mind, the Bills could have some real trouble this week on the road in Pittsburgh against the 8-5 Steelers. The Steelers looked dead in the water after a 1-4 start, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberer out for the season, but those four teams they lost to turned out to be 4 of the best teams in the NFL (Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens) and they’ve won 7 of 8 games since, including wins over competent opponents like the Colts, Rams, and Browns.
Their defense leads the way, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.41%. Since their week 7 bye, they’ve been even better defensively, ranking as the 2nd best defense in the league in first down rate allowed over that stretch at 30.23%. Their offense has been a different story, as they rank 27th in first down rate at 32.16% on the season, but they’ve played significantly better with Devlin Hodges under center than they did with Mason Rudolph under center. Not only does Hodges have a QB rating about 23 points higher than Rudolph, but he’s led the Steelers to a 36.53% first down rate in his 3 starts (3-0), as opposed to a 30.94% first down rate in their other 10 games.
Hodges was supposed to be getting running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back from injury this week and I was considering the Steelers as my Pick of the Week as a result, but Smith-Schuster had a setback in practice and will not return this week. Still, the return of Conner should help this offense and with wide receivers James Washington and Diontae Johnson showing more in recent weeks, the absence of Smith-Schuster isn’t as big of a deal.
The Steelers will not be my Pick of the Week this week, but I do think they’re worth betting on. At the very least, these two teams should be considered about even, but I give the slight edge to the Steelers because they’ve shown more competence in tough games and because they’ve been a better team since changing quarterbacks. This line, favoring the Steelers at home by just one point, suggests the Bills are the better team. My calculated line is Pittsburgh -3.5 and with about 20% of games decided by 2-3 points, we’re getting pretty significant line value with the Steelers at -1. This isn’t a huge play, but this spread definitely seems off.
Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Buffalo Bills 13
Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -1