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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Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2016 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

The Chiefs have been on my overrated list for a while. Despite their 12-4 record, they rank dead last among remaining the 8 remaining playoff teams in first down rate differential. Their record is largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +16 turnover margin (best in the NFL), and a +7 return touchdown margin (best in the NFL), but it’s tough to rely on teams to get takeaways and return touchdowns to win close games, as there’s no week-to-week correlation in turnover margin and, as a result, there’s no week-to-week correlation in return touchdown margin. They won’t be able to count on winning the turnover margin to win close games every week, especially not in the playoffs, and they had just a +1 offensive touchdown margin in the regular season, on top of a -37 first down margin.

However, I don’t love the Steelers this week for a few reasons. For one, the Chiefs’ play has improved as the season has gone on. Thanks to the emergence of youngsters Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones, along with the return of Justin Houston from injury, the Chiefs have played better football in recent weeks. You also have to take into that account that, for whatever reason, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid seems to turn into Bill Belichick after a bye, going 14-5 ATS off of a bye as a head coach. He’s only 3-1 ATS in the playoffs, but this would worry me if I bet on the Steelers.

I was hoping to get at least a field goal here with the Steelers on the road, but their blowout victory over the Dolphins last week made that line impossible. That’s really unfortunate because their win last week was against a mediocre Miami team that made the playoffs thanks to an easy schedule and close wins and because that game was in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have had no problem winning this season with Ben Roethlisberger under center all season. In 7 games started by Ben Roethlisberger at home 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 8 road games, however, his QB rating is 34.9 points lower and the Steelers are 5-3 with a point differential of just +16. The money line is your best bet here as the Steelers probably have about a 60-65% chance of winning, but this isn’t a high confidence pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Kansas City Chiefs 20 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +1.5

Confidence: Low

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Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2016 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

The Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 thanks to a 10-6 record, but they still have a lot of problems and are not as good as their record suggests. Many of their wins were close, while many of their losses were not. They went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, meaning they had just two wins by more than a touchdown, while 4 of their losses came by 13 points or more. That’s despite the fact that they had the easiest schedule in the league this year in terms of opponents’ combined record. In some order, the Rams, 49ers, Jets, and Browns were the worst 4 teams in the league this season and the Dolphins played all 4 of them, including the Jets twice. The Dolphins won all 5 of those games, but just 1 of them came by more than a touchdown (a 34-13 win week 15 in New York), meaning they had a tough time beating some of the worst teams in the league.

Ironically, their other victory by more than a touchdown came against their opponents this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who they beat 30-15 back in week 6. The Steelers are also the only playoff team the Dolphins have beaten. When you look at the Dolphins’ season, it’s a lot of close wins against bad teams and big losses against capable or better teams (15 point loss vs. Cincinnati, 13 point loss vs. Tennessee, 32 point loss vs. Baltimore, and 21 point loss vs. New England). The Dolphins’ week 6 home victory over these Steelers was easily the best game they’ve played this season and a major outlier in their season on the whole.

This game will be in Pittsburgh and the Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger healthy for the whole game, after he was knocked out midway through the game last time, but if the Dolphins can repeat easily their best game of the season they have a good shot in this one. Much more likely, they’ll be unable to repeat their best performance of the season, especially given all of the injuries they have. Since that week 6 victory, the Dolphins have lost both safeties, Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus, and talented center Mike Pouncey for the season with injury, while top cornerback Byron Maxwell and starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill will also be out for this game. The Steelers, meanwhile, aren’t missing any key players that played in the first matchup and are definitely in the better injury situation overall. This one seems like it’s going to be a Pittsburgh blowout, but I’m not confident laying 10 points with them.

Pittsburgh Steelers 31 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -10

Confidence: Low

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Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (1-14) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5)

The Steelers are resting their starters with the #3 seed locked up and the Browns are probably the worst team in the league, so I’m not going to spend too much time on this one, though I do find it funny that the Steelers’ backups are favored by 5.5 over the Browns. Notice I said funny, not inaccurate. This line makes sense to me. The Steelers were favored by 16.5 on the early line last week and I can buy that the Steelers’ resting their starters is worth about 11 points on the spread. The Browns beat the Chargers for their first win of the season last week, but they still rank dead last in first down rate and could be flat after winning what they called their “Super Bowl” last week. Teams tend to struggle after a home upset victory anyway, going 63-81 ATS in that spot since 2012. I have no interest in betting either side in this game, but I’m following the trend and taking the Steelers, even if it’s for a no confidence play.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -5.5

Confidence: None

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Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2016 Week 16 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)

I’m torn on this one. On one hand, the Steelers are in a better spot than the Ravens, finishing their season with an easy home game against the Browns on deck. Favorites of 6 or more, like the Steelers are here, tend to take care of business before easy games, going 96-54 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 6 or more again. The Steelers have also been great at home this year, going 4-1 straight up and against the spread in the 5 home games that Ben Roethlisberger started, outscoring opponents by an average of 16.25 points per game in the 4 victories and only losing to the Cowboys in a close 5-point game.

On the other hand, this is the biggest game of either team’s season, so I expect both teams to be completely focused, even if the Steelers have an easier game than the Ravens do next week. The Steelers are barely 6 point favorites any way and it’s arguable they are favored by a point or two too many. They rank 10th in first down rate, but the Ravens rank 16th. These Steelers/Ravens games always tend to be close anyway, with 16 of the last 21 matchups between these two teams being decided by a touchdown or less. On top of that, 10 of the Ravens’ last 17 losses have come by 6 points or fewer, as they have a strong defense and tend to keep games close. I’m taking the Ravens, but this is a no confidence pick. I’d need a full touchdown to take the Ravens with any sort of confidence.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Baltimore Ravens 19

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +6

Confidence: None

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Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1)

The Steelers are getting a lot of attention and rightfully so. They are red hot right now in a league that lacks top level teams and they are arguably the 3rd scariest team in the league right now behind New England and Dallas. However, they are getting almost all of the public action right now as 3.5 point road favorites in Cincinnati, which I think is too many points. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less and the Bengals are quietly playing very strong football right now too, even without Giovani Bernard and AJ Green, who remain out with injuries.

In 3 games since losing Bernard and Green, the Bengals have narrowly lost in Baltimore and have gotten big blowout victories at home against Philadelphia and on the road in Cleveland. Since they’re pretty much out of the playoff race, as a result of some close early losses, the Bengals aren’t getting a lot of attention, but they’re a dangerous team right now and are still a talented bunch without Green and Bernard. They rank 12th in first down rate differential, which is just a couple of spots behind Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is obviously healthier right now, but I think we’re getting great value with the Bengals as 3.5 point home underdogs.

The Steelers haven’t been quite the same team on the road this season. Like they are here, in their final road game of the season, the Steelers were favored in their first 7 road games, but lost three of them straight up, in Philadelphia, Miami, and Baltimore. None of those games were even that close; the Ravens’ game was the closest one with a final score of 21-14. Cincinnati is just as good as any of those teams and even if they don’t win this game straight up they still have a good chance to cover the spread because they’re getting 3.5 points. They’re worth a bet at that number, especially since the odds makers stand to lose a lot of money if Pittsburgh covers.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3.5

Confidence: Medium

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Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills: 2016 Week 14 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) at Buffalo Bills (6-6)

The Steelers got a big home win last week against the New York Giants, but this could be a letdown game for them in Buffalo. The Steelers are just 10-22 ATS as non-divisional road favorites in the Mike Tomlin era (since 2007) and have already fallen flat this season in Philadelphia and Miami in that spot. In fact, the Steelers have just 3 road wins this season and two of them came against the Browns and the Colts without Andrew Luck. We’re getting good line value with the Bills as field goal home underdogs (I would have made it an even line), so the Bills are worth a bet if you can get them at that number. The money line is a good bet in either scenario though.

Buffalo Bills 23 Pittsburgh Steelers 20 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the Spread: Buffalo +3

Confidence: Medium

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