NFL Expert Picks Against the Spread: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
The annual AFC Game of the Year used to be Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos or Indianapolis Colts vs. Tom Brady's New England Patriots. Since Manning's retirement, that has been replaced by Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers vs. Brady's Patriots. It's clearly the top game of Sunday - although not Week 15 as that's Chargers-Chiefs on Thursday - and it's vital as usual for playoff positioning.
(One wonders if this could be the final year that Big Ben vs. Brady is the signature game in the AFC with both getting up there in age and the rise of young quarterbacks in the AFC like the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, Texans' Deshaun Watson, Browns' Baker Mayfield and return to health of Colts' Andrew Luck.)
New England (9-4) almost surely isn't catching Kansas City (11-2) for the AFC's top seed, so it's No. 2 or bust. The Patriots are tied for that spot with Houston (9-4) but win the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans. New England will be a heavy favorite to win its final two games vs. Buffalo and the New York Jets.
Pittsburgh (7-5-1) leads the AFC North and is fourth in the conference standings but isn't even assured a playoff spot at this point. Baltimore is just a half-game back in the division and the Colts, Dolphins and Titans are also 7-6 in terms of the wild-card chase. Pittsburgh and Baltimore split this season. The Steelers don't play Indy, Miami or Tennessee. Pittsburgh's 4-5-1 conference record could become a major problem, though, and obviously that could be 4-6-1 by Sunday night. The Steelers close at New Orleans (good luck) and home to Cincinnati (should win).
Patriots at Steelers Betting Story Lines
I cashed in betting against both the Patriots and Steelers last week in potential trap games in Miami and Oakland, respectively. They were both giving way too many points, in my opinion. New England should have at least won but of course lost 34-33 in perhaps the most unlikely fashion in franchise history on a 69-yard multi-lateral with no time on the clock. The last guy to get the ball, Kenyan Drake, wasn't even touched. How does that happen? Why did Bill Belichick put in a gimpy Rob Gronkowski at deep safety? Ryan Tannehill surely couldn't throw the ball 70 yards in the air, and Gronk had the final chance to tackle Drake but stumbled (and really looked old doing it). Belichick said he never considered putting a regular defensive package on the field instead of the Hail Mary unit.
That was one of a few curious decisions in the game by guys who don't normally make such mistakes. Brady got sacked late in the first half on third-and-goal at the Miami 2 with no timeouts when a field goal is almost assured if he just throws the ball away. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski does deserve some blame as well with a missed PAT and missed 22-yard field goal with 16 seconds left. Brady played great otherwise, throwing for 358 and three scores. So did Gronk (eight catches, 107 yards, TD).
The Steelers figured to be flat last Sunday off a shocking, historic home loss to the Chargers in Week 13, traveling across country to a bad Oakland team and then ahead of this one - and they were. The Raiders pulled the 24-21 upset on Derek Carr's 6-yard TD pass with 21 seconds left. The Steelers actually then had their own lateral play on first-and-10 and their own 30 with 14 seconds left and JuJu Smith-Schuster nearly scored. He was knocked out at the Oakland 22. That's usually money for Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell, but he slipped on that terrible playing surface in a dump stadium and the kick never had a chance. Apparently, the Steelers will conduct kicking tryouts this week, although Boswell will be part of them.
What was most strange was Mike Tomlin's decision to not return an injured Roethlisberger to the game as early as possible. He injured a rib near the end of the first half, but Tomlin chose to stick with seldom-used backup Josh Dobbs for the majority of the second half. At first, Tomlin said it was just a rhythm of the game decision, which makes zero sense. He finally came clean on Tuesday, saying Big Ben had a pain-killing shot in those ribs and that it simply took a while for that to take effect. Still, Roethlisberger said he was ready to go, but Tomlin apparently wanted to protect his QB and perhaps thought Pittsburgh could beat the sorry Raiders with Dobbs.
Patriots at Steelers Betting Odds and Trends
At 5Dimes , it's a pick'em with a total of 52 . On the moneyline, New England is -123 and Pittsburgh +103. On the alternate lines, the Pats are -1 (-115) and -1.5 (-110). The Patriots are 8-5 against the spread (3-4 on road) and 5-8 "over/under" (3-4 on road). The Steelers are 6-6-1 ATS (3-3 at home) and 7-6 O/U (5-1 at home.)
New England is 9-2 ATS in its past 11 December games. It is 18-7 ATS in its past 25 vs. teams with a winning record. Pittsburgh is 6-2 ATS in its past eight after a loss. It is 1-7 ATS in its past eight in December. The under is 5-0 in the Patriots' previous 11 following a loss. It's 4-1 in the Steelers' past five vs. the AFC. The favorite is 4-1 ATS in the past five meetings.
Patriots at Steelers Betting Prediction
I read something that a majority of players in fantasy football playoffs were there because they either had Todd Gurley (the No. 1 pick in most drafts) or James Conner (only thought of as a handcuff for Le'Veon Bell at the start of the season). Conner was out vs. Oakland with a reported high-ankle sprain. Those are almost always multiple-week injuries. We doubt he plays, but Conner hasn't been ruled out yet. Jaylen Samuels and former Patriot Stevan Ridley would share duties again.
Pittsburgh has lost five straight in the series, including an epic 27-24 decision at home nearly a year to the day this Sunday when a game-winning TD in the final seconds was overturned. With Conner probably out and Big Ben perhaps not 100 percent, there are plenty of reasons to back New England. However, the Pats have been shaky in a few road games this year. Take Pittsburgh (assuming Big Ben plays) and the under.
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