New England Patriots (10-3 SU, 8-5 ATS) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2 SU, 6-7 ATS)
NFL Week 15
Date/Time: Sunday December 17th 4:25 PM EST
Where: Heinz Field
by Mike M, Expert Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: NE -2.5 / PIT +2.5
Over/Under Total: 54
The best of the AFC meet in Pittsburgh when the Steelers host the Patriots in a game that should decide the top seed in the conference and what many are expecting to be a preview for the eventual title matchup in late January to see who will move on to play in the Super Bowl. The Steelers enter the weekend one game ahead of New England in the standings but a loss to them this weekend would see them cede the ever important tiebreaker advantage, which becomes even more crucial considering both will be heavy favorites to win their last two games of the season respectively with Pittsburgh having the Texans and Browns remaining while the Patriots have home matchups against the Bills and Jets.
Pittsburgh was able to clinch their third AFC North title in the past four seasons when they got past Baltimore 39-38 last Sunday night in a game that they were once losing by 11 points in the 4th quarter but were able to mount a late comeback thanks to some questionable play calling by the Ravens that decided to pass rather than run the clock out behind a running game led by Alex Collins that had found much success up until then. The victory was the Steelers 8th in a row and the seventh time this season they have won a game by one possession or less, including their last three which have come by a combined total of seven points. They are now 17-1 in their last 18 games played in December and have put up an NFL best record of 18-2 over their last 20 regular season contests.
The devastating effect of the loss of defensive leader Ryan Shazier due to a spinal injury suffered against the Bengals has been clearly evident since unfortunate departure, which is no surprise considering just how important he has been to them in recent history with Shazier currently the team leader in both tackles and interceptions this season and having finished second in tackles and interceptions in 2015. Usually they could rely on teammate James Harrison to attempt to step up and fill the vast void, but Harrison himself has been hampered by injuries all year and so far has recorded just three tackles on the season, including zero in his return to play against the Ravens last weekend. Pittsburgh still has ample talent abound on a defensive unit that ranks in the top nine in the NFL in yards allowed, rushing, passing and scoring, but the loss of Shazier can clearly not be understated, especially for a defense that was already struggling a bit and has let up an average of over 28 points over the past three games.
Offensively the Steelers have no such concern with a stacked roster led by two of the best in the league in Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell, along with Ben Roethlisberger and an additional slew of targets such rookie standout Ju-Ju Smith Schuster and the talent yet mercurial Martavis Bryant. Pittsburghs running game hasnt been as featured as in years past, currently just ranking 23rd in the league and seeing their focal point Bell averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry this season, has been held under 100 yards rushing in their last six games and has surpassed the century mark only three times all season and those were in contests where he had at least 32 carries in each. But with the array of weapons they have at their disposal its no wonder that Roethlisberger was able to become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 500 yards in a game three times in his career.
The Steeler signal caller will be hoping the Patriots defense puts up a repeat performance of their unfortunate 27-20 loss to the Dolphins on Monday Night Football when they let Jay Cutler throw all over them for 263 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions while completing 65% of his passes. The loss ended a second best in NFL history streak of 14 straight road wins for the Patriots and also prevented them from clinching their 9th AFC East title in a row while also tying an NFL record for most consecutive playoff appearances with nine seasons in a row. They looked out of sync right from the start and had only two yards of offense in the first quarter with a time of possession of just 1:48, and things unfortunately never got better as the Patriots ended the game with zero 3rd down conversions on their way to what was their third loss of the season with all coming in matchups that they were favored to win by 8 or more points.
Another recurring theme to their losses was the porous play of the Patriots offensive line, as they had little affect in stopping the Dolphin pass rush and allowed Tom Brady to be hit and harassed all night long. Brady had two interceptions against Miami and has now thrown four in his past three games, which is a lot for any quarterback, especially one like Brady who had a total of four interceptions in his previous 23 regular season games combined. The Patriots offense gained little traction throughout the night with just 25 yards rushing and their under duress passing game unable to get any consistency going. They have won with Gronkowski out of the lineup before but he was noticeably missed, which should come as no surprise considering he has more receiving touchdowns (74) than any other NFL player since 2010, which is all the more impressive considering he has missed 26 games in the process..
As bad as the Patriots looked like last week they have usually bounced back well after such games, especially when playing as hard they did in the second half when things looked bleakest, which was reminiscent of the infamous MNF loss to the Chiefs back in 2015 that they responded to with a dominant run to another Super Bowl title. Tom Brady has played some of his best football versus the Steelers in years past, with a 10-2 all time record including a recent 7-1 run over his past eight games in which he has thrown 24 touchdowns and zero interceptions with his last turnover through against them back in 2005.
Despite their lackluster showing against the Dolphins, the Steelers recent eight game winning streak and the fact of the game being in Pittsburgh, oddsmakers installed the Patriots as a 2.5 point favorite in what will be their fifth road contest in the past six weeks. New England has had a strong edge against the Steelers in recent years, both physically and mentally/on the field and on the sidelines, and that has happened regardless of where the games have taken place, as the Patriots have gone 6-2 in their last eight games at Pittsburgh with an average win by over 10 points per game and have not lost in Pennsylvania since back in 2011. I expect New England to continue that success and get back on track this week with a win and cover against the Steelers and in doing so putting themselves in position for a strong run at what would be their third Super Bowl title in the past four seasons.
Mike Ms Pick to Cover the Point Spread: New England -2.5 - Where are you betting this game? Bet it for FREE by taking advantage of a 50% welcome bonus offered to new players at Bovada Sportsbook