Detroit Lions (0-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
The Pittsburgh Steelers were a 12-4 team a year ago, but many of their wins came by small margins against weak opponents, with a dominant defense masking significant flaws on offense. As their schedule got harder, the Steelers, who won their first 11 games, lost five of their final six games, including a first round playoff exit. Overall, just three of their twelve wins came by more than ten points and their nine games that were within that margin of 10 included teams like the Giants, Broncos, Texans, Eagles, and Cowboys, who all finished 6-10 or worse, as well as a matchup against a Ravens team that was playing many backups due to a COVID outbreak.
Coming into this season, the Steelers’ didn’t look noticeably improved on offense, while their defense had the potential to be significantly worse than last year’s dominant unit, as a result of off-season losses and general regression to the mean. The Steelers have gotten out to a 5-3 start, despite their schedule being tougher than a year ago, but they have not been as good as their record, as their three losses have come by more points combined (33) than their five wins (25). In fact, their biggest margin of victory all season is just seven points.
Despite that, the Steelers are still favored by 8.5 points in this game. The Lions may seem like a team they should be favored by more than a touchdown against, as they are the league’s last remaining winless team, but that doesn’t mean they are the worst team in the league, as many of their losses have been close. On average, their losses have come by an average of 13.8 points per game and their -110 point differential is not the worst in the league, but even that makes it seem like they’ve been blown out more than they have been, as five of their eight losses have been kept within 10 points and one of their three losses by more than 10 points came in a game in which the Lions led the Packers at halftime in Green Bay.
Overall, the Lions rank 24th, 27th, and 4th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency respectively, which isn’t too far behind the Steelers, who haven’t been particularly good on any side of the ball this season, ranking 16th, 20th, and 17th respectively in those three metrics. The Lions should also get a boost in this matchup with talented left tackle Taylor Decker set to make his season debut after missing all of the season to this point with injury, a significant re-addition for this team. Given how many close games these two teams tend to play and that the Lions are getting healthier, I have this line calculated at Pittsburgh -5.5, so we’re getting significant line value with the Lions at +8.5.
The Lions’ biggest margin of defeat of the season came in their most recent matchup, a 44-6 defeat at home against the Eagles, but they were likely flat in that matchup after giving their best effort against the Rams in a close loss the week before, and that blowout loss should put the Lions in a good spot this week, as they will be embarrassed after that loss and will likely be much more focused to try to prove people wrong. In total, teams cover at a 58.7% rate all-time after a loss by 35 points or more, in part because teams tend to give their best effort after being embarrassed, but also partially because teams tend to be overlooked after a blowout loss.
Going off of that, the Lions being winless is another reason they could be overlooked and, typically as a result of being overlooked, winless teams tend to be a good bet this late in the season, covering at a 64.9% rate in week 9 or later. The Steelers are especially likely to overlook the Lions given that they have a much tougher game on deck in Los Angeles against the Chargers on Sunday Night Football next week. Favorites of a touchdown or more cover at just a 42.9% rate before facing an opponent whose winning percentage is at least 50% higher than their current opponent’s winning percentage. With the Lions in a much better spot than the Steelers, who are overvalued as 8.5-point favorites, the Lions are an easy choice in this matchup against the spread and are worth a big play.
Update: I am glad I locked this in at 8.5, because Ben Roethlisberger is out for this game with COVID and the Steelers will turn to backup Mason Rudolph. The line has dropped to 6 as a result. For those wondering, I would still bet the Lions at 6, but not for as big of a play because I don’t think there is much difference between Roethlisberger and Rudolph and a line movement that involved key numbers of 6 and 7 is significant. With Rudolph under center, my calculated line is Pittsburgh -3.5. There is a decent chance the Lions could win their first game of the season this week.
Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Detroit Lions 20
Pick against the spread: Detroit +8.5