NFL Expert Picks Against the Spread: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer when he retires thanks in part to those two Super Bowl rings - still can't believe he has never won an MVP Award - grew up in Lima, Ohio, about 170 miles or so from Cleveland.
Roethlisberger, a huge Browns fan growing up, wasn't a major recruit coming out of Findlay High School, located 47 miles south of Toledo, as he didn't even start at quarterback until he was a senior. Before that, he backed up the coach's son, Ryan Hite, for two years. As a senior, Big Ben smashed state passing records and then Mid-American Conference records as a three-year starter not far away at Miami of Ohio.
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It's well-known that the Browns worked out Roethlisberger ahead of the 2004 draft, in which Cleveland held the No. 6 overall pick. For whatever reason, the Browns chose not to take Roethlisberger (Eli Manning went No. 1 that year, Larry Fitzgerald No. 3 and Philip Rivers No. 4 - they will all be in the Hall of Fame someday too) but instead a tight end from Miami (Fla.) named Kellen Winslow II. No one had a problem with that originally because Winslow II was a star in college and obviously had good genes. He should have become what Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates did. Winslow had a couple of good seasons in Cleveland and then a few more with Tampa Bay in an otherwise unremarkable career.
Big Ben still harbors a chip at the Browns for passing on him. And that's why I wonder whether he might want to ensure Cleveland becomes the second team in NFL history to finish 0-16 when Coach Mike Tomlin instead might prefer to rest his starters for Sunday's regular-season finale.
Browns at Steelers Betting Story Lines
I'll admit I was very wrong on Pittsburgh (12-3) in Week 16 when it visited Houston on Christmas Day. I didn't think the Texans would win but would cover a big spread because the Steelers were going to be flat off their epic Week 15 home loss to the Patriots - not to mention playing without the NFL's best receiver in Antonio Brown, who has a partially torn calf muscle. The Steelers had no trouble at all in a 34-6 victory.
Roethlisberger threw for 226 yards and two scores, while Le'Veon Bell rushed for a score. I'd say the defense played great - cornerback Mike Hilton sure did with three sacks and a forced fumble - but that unit was going against T.J. Yates and, briefly, someone named Taylor Heinicke.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the New England Patriots woke up after a flat first half vs. Buffalo and won 37-16 on Sunday. That means the Patriots will be the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a home victory against the Jets on Sunday in a game that kicks off at the same time as Browns-Steelers (1 p.m. ET). What do you do here if you are Tomlin? The No. 2 seed is clinched at a minimum. Do you really risk your starters against a hated rival with nothing to lose and which will be foaming at the mouth to avoid 0-16 infamy?
Tomlin has to presume the Patriots have no shot of losing at home to the Jets - maybe if Josh McCown was healthy, New York had a small prayer but not with Bryce Petty. Perhaps Tomlin plays his guys a half and then gets them out of there it the Pats are up big at halftime? Does Big Ben ask to stay in to stick it to the Browns? All good questions that I can't answer. Last year, the Steelers were locked into the No. 4 seed and rested almost everyone in a Week 17 OT win over the Browns - who had gotten their lone 2016 victory the week before. For sure, Antonio Brown is out vs. Cleveland, and it's a good thing the Steelers have a first-round bye locked up because he wasn't expected to be ready for the wild-card round.
As for Cleveland, I expect maximum effort. These guys are professionals and don't want to be labeled as perhaps the worst team in NFL history by completing a 1-31 run over the past two seasons. Probably already too late for that. Owner Jimmy Haslam has said Coach Hue Jackson is coming back, but how can you tell that tortured fan base that you are bringing Jackson back after 0-16? The Lions fired Rod Marinelli after their 2008 trainwreck and Marinelli was at least 10-38 in his three years. No matter what happens, the Browns will pick first in the 2018 draft - although you keep hearing star college quarterbacks like USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen say they might stay in school to avoid going there. Could you even imagine that?
Browns at Steelers Betting Odds and Trends
At 5Dimes , Pittsburgh is a 14.5-point favorite (+110) with a total of 39.5. On the moneyline, the Steelers are -950 and Browns +625. On the alternate lines, Pittsburgh is -14 (+100) and -13.5 (-110). The Browns are 3-12 against the spread (1-6 on road) and 6-9 "over/under" (4-3 on road). The Steelers are 7-8 ATS (3-4 at home) and 5-10 O/U (4-3 at home).
Cleveland is 6-18-2 ATS in its past 26 vs. the AFC North. It has covered just five of its past 22 vs. teams with a winning record. The Steelers are 1-4 ATS in their previous five and have failed to cover four straight after a win. The under is 18-6 in the Browns' past 24 vs. teams with a winning record. It's 13-3 in Pittsburgh's previous 16 following a win of at least 14 points. The under is 5-1 in the past six meetings.
Browns at Steelers Betting Prediction
Big Ben improved to 21-2 vs. the Browns in Week 1 with a 21-18 victory, but it was one of Cleveland's three covers. I fully expect Jackson to throw every gadget play, onside kick, what have you at Pittsburgh in this one. A result similar to last year where the Steelers backups pull out a late win sounds about right. I absolutely love the Browns getting 14.5 points. Go under the total.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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