Patriots Open as Four-Point Underdogs on the Road Against Pittsburgh
After an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns this week, the Patriots opened as four-point underdogs against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.
Before I get into picking this week's game, I have a confession to make -- when I was a little boy, I actually rooted for the Steelers. Growing up in Western PA, it was expected. My entire family roots for the Steelers. Of course, they had good reason. They got to watch the steroid-fueled glory years with the likes of Terry Bradshaw, Jack Hamm, Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert winning Super Bowls and thrashing opponents. What did I have to watch while I was in my formative years? Bubby Brister. Bubby. Brister. I can't be sure, but I think that is the legal definition of child abuse in some states. It's a wonder I didn't give up on football altogether and seek out other fine spectator sports to take up my Sundays, like bowling or billiards. As soon as I was old enough to think for myself, I set out to find a favorite team all my own, a team that would really work to put a quality product on the field for their fans. And that team ultimately ended up being the New England Patriots, who had just drafted a certain exciting young quarterback out of Washington State in 1993. I was a little later to the party than most of our readers, but I've been here ever since. Even when Pittsburgh started to suck a little bit less, I never looked back. The Steelers rank among my least favorite teams outside of the AFC East, so this week's analysis is going to be difficult for me due to an extreme lack of objectivity. If I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet on this game at all.
When the Patriots have the ball, their main concern is going to be pass protection. Although Brady has only been sacked 13 times this year, he has faced a great deal of pressure that has contributed to his pedestrian passing numbers (by his standards, at least). I expect New England to make an effort to get the ball out of his hands quickly by running a lot of screen plays to slow down the pass rush. The recent injury to DE Aaron Smith and the nagging injury to Brett Keisel means that the Steelers will probably be forced to blitz to get pressure, creating opportunities to exploit a defensive backfield that has given up plenty of passing yards this year. The other key will be converting in the red zone. Between the 20s, the Patriots should be able to move the ball as well as any opponent Pittsburgh has faced this year. However, if they are forced to settle for field goals in the red zone, they could be in trouble.
The young Patriots defense has been more than a little shaky, but they could present a unique challenge to Pittsburgh's offense. Pittsburgh's rushing offense has been mediocre (ranked 12th overall in rushing yards per game), so the Pats shouldn't need to commit an extra defender to the box. Over the past 3 games, nearly half of the team's pass completions have gone to RBs and TEs. Roethlisberger likes to take shots down the field, but the New England secondary has done an extremely good job of limiting big plays in the passing game this year. The area where Pittsburgh could have the most success is attacking the middle-third of the field in the passing game. The pressure will be on a young and inexperienced LB corps to cut down throwing lanes for Big Ben and cover receivers for that extra second to allow the defensive line to get their hands on him.
My overly objective analysis tells me that the smart money might be on the Steelers covering the spread. My completely biased analysis tells me that the Pats will win big because a whining and crying James Harrison will abruptly quit football since his illegal hits will result in him receiving a weekly bill instead of a weekly paycheck, Big Ben will get arrested for assaulting a concierge, and Troy Polamalu will miss the game due to contractual obligations to film another uninspired Head & Shoulders commercial. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. I'll pick the Pats to cover the spread, but I wouldn't touch the moneyline unless it reaches +200 or better.
Other lines I like this week
RAMS (+5.5) at 49ERS
While I do like Troy Smith, I can't back any team that is a 5 1/2-point favorite with him at QB at this point in his career. I think the 49ers are smart to start him since his prospects are certainly brighter than Alex Smith's at this point. But he is almost certain to have a few growing pains. He was serviceable in the Denver game, but if you give a solid defensive mind like Steve Spagnuolo two weeks to dissect the tape on a young QB, and he's going to find plenty of ways to limit him.
EAGLES (-3) at REDSKINS
I should probably know better than to pick against a home underdog coming off a bye in a divisional game. But having watched a number of Washington games this season, I am still thoroughly unimpressed with their entire team. It is tough for any defense to contain Vick, and with Desean Jackson back at full strength, I think the Eagles will earn a measure of revenge for their loss to Washington earlier this year. The Eagles aren't a great team, but I think they are too good to be swept by the Redskins.
GIANTS (-11) vs. COWBOYS
If Sunday night's game was any indication, most of the Dallas locker room has already packed it in for the year. I just can't envision this team pulling everything together on the road against one of the best teams in the NFC. I think the public will back the Giants hard in this game, so get those bets in early.
2010 Record ATS (2-6) ... things will get better folks, I promise