The finish line is in sight. Four teams, three games, and two weekends of play to decide one champion.
By now, we have weeded out the weak. The Texans and injury-riddled Dolphins and Raiders are eliminated. The Cowboys’ defense and Giants’ offense led to exits in each team’s first game. And the Seahawks and Chiefs simply failed to rise to the occasion. The Patriots, Steelers, Packers, and Falcons – all top-three seeds in their conference – have earned the right to play on Sunday afternoon.
Not surprisingly, the remaining four teams all share an important commonality – outstanding quarterbacks. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan feature a combined seven championships, and it is no accident that they have led their teams this deep into the playoffs. It speaks to our postseason projections article, where we based many of our expectations on the play surrounding the quarterback position. There is no more fitting ending to conference play than a battle between a quartet of the game’s best and the defenses’ attempts to slow them down.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team. An asterisk denotes a confidence pick.
*Confidence Picks – 2016 Season: 51-67-3 (Last Week: 0-2)
(2015 Season: 69-45-2) (2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2016 Season: 121-135-8 (Last Week: 1-3)
(2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (-5.5)*
There is always a narrative when it comes to the New England Patriots. Generally one of the most polarizing teams in the National Football League, New England is either adored by its fan base or vilified by nearly every other one. In the world of picking games against the spread – where value is derived from more than simply the statistics of an upcoming matchup – we must consider all ingredients being mixed to form the end product that is the AFC Championship Game.
With a 14-2 record and only one postseason game to dissect, the Patriots have displayed so few flaws that analysts are actively seeking holes in the team. As a result, New England’s Divisional Round victory is being used as an example of how the Patriots’ offense can be beaten.
New England scored 34 points against the best defense in football.
In fairness, seven of the 34 points came from special teams – a kickoff returned for a touchdown – but all 377 yards of offense were tallied against a defense that allowed a league-best average of 301.3 yards-per-game. By comparison, the 377-yard dud was the second-highest total Houston allowed, all season, and only five defenses allowed an average of 377 yards or more per-game – Washington, Miami, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and San Francisco. The Patriots’ offense reduced the Texans’ defense to a bottom-tier unit.
Of all the teams not hailing from New England, Pittsburgh is arguably the next franchise whose reputation precedes it – Dallas is another. The Steelers are looked upon favorably year-after-year thanks to ridiculous consistency from the quarterback and head coach – in fact, the last three head coaches – and a duo of fantasy football studs that always give the illusion of an explosion waiting to happen. These positive factors have inflated Pittsburgh to the point that a nine-game winning streak appears normal.
It isn’t. If anything, it is circumstantial.
The Steelers are undeniably one of the best teams in the league, but they are one of the best teams in a league that is currently devoid of great, consistent teams – except, of course, New England.
Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak included the following opponents – Indianapolis, New York Giants, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Miami, Kansas City, and Cleveland twice. Only three of these teams made the playoffs, while Indianapolis and Miami both started backup quarterbacks against the Steelers.
The 14-2 New England Patriots have lost exactly one game with Tom Brady at the helm, this season. Said loss was a phenomenal, nationally-televised thriller in which the Patriots had four attempts within the two-yard line at a potential game-tying touchdown. By inches, the Patriots have one loss since Week 5.
New England’s outstanding offense – third-best in points, fourth-best in yards – also steals the glory from a defense that finished the year ranked best in points allowed and eighth-best in yards allowed. Pittsburgh’s offense may be one of the most dangerous in the league, but it will face an underrated Patriots defense that has 17 takeaways over the last seven games.
Finally, the spread between New England and Pittsburgh is perfect. It may change, but holding at five-and-a-half points for most of the week sets up nicely for the potential outcome. That is, New England can win by a touchdown either in regulation or overtime and still cover the spread.
The Patriots have scored at least 30 points in eight of Brady’s thirteen games, and finding the endzone late in the game to seal a victory plays right into the team’s strength of having multiple offensive weapons and outstanding leadership at the two key positions – head coach and quarterback. New England does, indeed, win by a touchdown and cover the spread.