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HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

NEW ENGLAND VISITS PITTSBURGH
IN POSSIBLE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

On paper, there are certainly several teams in the AFC who could find their way to the AFC Championship game in January and it wouldn't surprise anybody.

AFC East: New England and the NY Jets
AFC North: Pittsburgh and Baltimore
AFC South: Indianapolis at Tennessee
AFC West: Maybe Kansas City, possibly San Diego

It's tough to pencil in an AFC West team based on what we've seen this year. It was tough to pencil in the Arizona Cardinals out of the NFC West a few years ago and look at what happened.

New England and Pittsburgh are on the short list...and join Indianapolis as teams on the short list who have been to recent Super Bowls! If there's a skill for knowing how to win big playoff games, the Brady and Roethslisberger eras suggest very strongly that these teams know how to do that.

Maybe it will be a preview of the AFC championship game. Or, maybe pundits and analysts are remembering too much of the past and not focusing enough on RIGHT NOW when thinking about these teams. Are DRIVE POINT data from this past Thursday's NFL previews sheds some light on that (if you missed that report, and Sunday's action hasn't started yet, you still have time to go back in the archives and study the numbers for ALL of today's games!)

New England: 16.9 offense, 17.4 defense (+5 TO's, 12th schedule)
Pittsburgh: 7.6 offense, 6.5 defense (+9 TO's, 2nd schedule)

The numbers you see represent points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. We believe this is the best indicator stat in all of sports. You throw out cheap points. You throw out kick returns. Can the offense drive the field or not? Can the defense stop opponents from driving the field or not? That's why we use this data in our previews every season.

On the plus side for the Pats and Steelers:

*New England is having a great year on offense, and it's coming against a real schedule.

*Pittsburgh is having a great year on defense, and it's coming against a BRUTAL schedule.

*Both teams are on the right end of the risk/reward relationship, which is a standard characteristic of these coaches and these teams.

*Both teams are 6-2 (not shown, but we should mention it) without any help from gift schedules. This isn't 2009 where there were clear and dramatic splits between the have's and the have not's. To the degree there is a split, these teams have earned their spots as very serious Super Bowl contenders.

Now, the bad news:

*New England's defense is HORRIBLE! This was obvious last week in an embarrassing loss to Cleveland. It was obvious in a very one-sided road loss at the NY Jets back in September. It's been obvious in a few wins where Tom Brady had to post big numbers for the team to finish on top.

Here are DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED on a game-by-game basis this year:
21 vs. Cincinnati
25 at the NY Jets
7 vs. Buffalo (before the QB change0
14 at Miami
13 vs. Baltimore
17 at San Diego
18 vs. Minnesota
24 at Cleveland

Allowing 13-14 is a disappointment...allowing 17 or more is a problem. New England has FIVE problem games in their first eight! The only good outing came against the Bills before Buffalo figured out how to move the ball by benching their original starting quarterback.

History has shown that it's VERY difficult to string together three postseason wins in a row (what it takes if you're a bye team to win the Super Bowl, it's four wins if you don't earn a bye) if you're defense is this bad. Your offense can be perfect for a game or two. It can't be perfect for a whole month.

You saw Cleveland take the initiative away from the Pats last week by owning the point of attack. Brett Favre had been struggling all year, but put up good numbers in Foxboro. The Pats need to fix this, or the odds will be against them in January. Remember how Baltimore owned the point of attack last year in the playoffs, winning outright as a dog over Brady and the Pats?

*Pittsburgh's offense is HORRIBLE! Yes, their average was hurt badly by missing Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season. But, he's not exactly lighting up the scoreboard upon his return. The Steelers great defense has set up some cheap point opportunities that's helped disguise that. Looking only at DRIVE POINTS, you can see what ISN'T happening.

Here are DRIVE POINTS scored on a game-by-game basis for Pittsburgh this year:
6 vs. Atlanta (first four games with backups)
3 at Tennessee
14 at Tampa Bay
14 vs. Baltimore
14 vs. Cleveland (Big Ben returns)
3 at Miami
7 at New Orleans
0 at Cincinnati

That's 37 points scored in the four games without Ben, and only 24 points scored in the four games with Ben. Yes...three of the four were on the road. But, it's still the worst active four-week run for anyone in the NFL right now!

The Steelers very easily could have lost in Miami or Cincinnati...putting them at 4-4 instead of 6-2 right now. Pittsburgh isn't steamrolling the league since Ben's return. A very ineffective offense is forcing them to win coin flips. Good luck with that in the playoffs.

So, New England at Pittsburgh tonight on NBC could easily be an AFC Championship Preview. Or, it would be a red herring in a season where all the contenders have vulnerabilities...and NOBODY's a sure thing to go deep. We still have two months to let that play itself out. Tonight, JIM HURLEY and all of you trying to pick a winner have a very interesting challenge.

IT'S STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH!

*The great New England offense faces the great Pittsburgh defense
*The struggling Pittsburgh offense faces the struggling New England defense

Figure out the degrees of 'great'and 'struggling'that are in play, and you've got the pointspread winner (possibly a total rather than a side). Do you have the resources to do that? Do you have the experience to do that? Do you have the courage of your conviction if you can come up with a conviction?

JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK is a team of scouts, sources, statheads, trend historians, computer programmers, and Wise Guy connections that was built for the express purpose of finding soft Las Vegas lines and pounding them. No other handicapping entity comes anywhere near this. There are information guys...and numbers guys...and computer guys...but no JUGGERNAUT that features everything at once like this!

If there's a winner to be bet tonight, JIM HURLEY will have it. He knows you like winning the TV games. But, he also knows you want the BEST PLAYS ON THE BOARD rather than just TV leans. On Sunday's card, he's also looking at: NY Jets/Cleveland, Tennessee/Miami, Cincinnati/Indianapolis, and the eight divisional rivalry showdowns that will make this a truly special Sunday. (We'll also have something special for you tomorrow in Philadelphia/Washington on ESPN...be sure to check out tomorrow's NOTEBOOK entry for an in-depth preview!)

You can purchase today's card online, or call 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about basketball when you call. College hoops has joined the NBA on the hardwood, giving clients a chance to win seven days a week instead of just on weekends. Game day releases in ALL SPORTS can be purchased with your credit card a few hours before kickoff or tipoff.

It's an NFL Sunday. You can lose on your own, like you've probably been doing all season long. Or, you can link up with PROVEN WINNER JIM HURLEY!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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