Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots: 2016 AFC Championship Pick

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

Confidence: Low

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Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are red hot right now and understandably getting a lot of attention. Since an unimpressive 4-6 start, the Packers have won 8 straight games to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record and to win two playoff games and advance to the NFC Championship game. If you watch sports talk shows this week, you’d think it was the Packers favored by 4 points and the presumptive favorite to move on to the Super Bowl, but instead it’s the other way around, with the higher seeded Falcons favored by 4 points at home.

There’s a reason for that. As much attention as the Packers’ offense is getting, the Falcons’ offense is still significantly better and is statistically one of the top offenses in NFL history. Including last week’s win over the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons have picked up a first down or touchdown on 43.92% of offensive snaps this season, more than 3% higher than the next best team, the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers, meanwhile, have moved the chains at a “mere” 38.94% rate this season, including playoffs, almost 5% lower than the Falcons.

Even if you just look at their 8 game winning streak, the Packers are only moving the chains at a 41.60% rate, meaning, as red hot as they are right now offensively, the Falcons have still been better than them offensively all season. If you look at just the last 8 weeks, the Falcons are actually even better, moving the chains at a 47.19% rate over that time period. As good as the Packers are offensively, the Falcons are simply better. They run the ball better and with more consistency. They have a better overall offensive line. And they also have healthier wide receivers.

Atlanta’s top receiver Julio Jones has been limited by a toe injury in recent weeks, but, as you can see, it hasn’t hurt their ability to move the ball. On the Green Bay side, #1 receiver Jordy Nelson could miss his 2nd straight game with broken ribs, while fellow starter Davante Adams and #4 receiver Geronimo Allison are expected to be gametime calls. Even if all 3 of them play, they all figure to be limited, as head coach Mike McCarthy admitted that none of them would play if this wasn’t a playoff game.

Defensively, these two teams are comparable. The Packers have a little better defense overall (37.34% first down rate vs. 38.01% first down rate allowed), but the Falcons have been better than the Packers if we just look at the last 8 weeks (36.94% first down rate vs. 35.51% first down rate allowed), even with the Packers being 8-0 over that time period. The Falcons aren’t undefeated over that time period, but they’re pretty close, going 6-1 with their one loss coming by 1 point against a Kansas City team that scored 9 points off returns and won despite losing the first down battle 32 to 17.

On the season, the Falcons have won 8 of 12 games by more than a touchdown, with just 1 loss coming by more than a touchdown (9 points in Philadelphia), and have they the NFC’s best point differential at +150, along with the NFC’s best first down rate differential at +6.07% (vs. +2.15% for the Packers). The public seems to be eating up the sports talk media idea that the Packers are the better team here, as more than ⅔ rds of the action is on Green Bay. I disagree, which is probably a good thing, considering the public always loses money in the long run. I think this line should be around 6 in favor of the Falcons, so we’re getting good line value with them at 4. They’re worth a bet if you can get that number, though this line is 4.5 or 5 in some places.

Atlanta Falcons 38 Green Bay Packers 31

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4

Confidence: Medium

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