Ravens - Steelers Sunday Night Preview
PITTSBURGH ON PRECIPICE WITH ROETHLISBERGER ON THE SIDELINES
Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the NY Giants in a game that impressed fans and sports bettors alike. They looked once again like Super Bowl contenders. Now, after an injury to starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they head into Sunday Night's nationally televised game against the Baltimore Ravens in danger of drifting out of the playoff picture.
This isn't something that would happen right away. There is some margin for error as backup Byron Leftwich takes charge. Here are the AFC Wildcard standings heading into this week's NFL action.
AFC WILDCARD STANDINGS (top 2 qualify)
San Diego 4-5
Cincinnati plays the hapless Kansas City Chiefs Sunday afternoon, meaning the Bengals have a good chance of reaching 5-5. A Pittsburgh loss drops them to 6-4, which is just one game clear. Next week, Cincinnati hosts Oakland while Pittsburgh, probably still shorthanded, has to play on the road against divisional rival Cleveland. In a relative fingersnap, the Steelers could easily be sweating the playoffs with a month to go.
On the other hand, you can see how a couple of good weeks by Leftwich would give the Steelers plenty of breathing room. A home upset of Baltimore Sunday night moves the record to 7-3. Two good weeks and nobody's catching them from behind in the mediocre AFC.
Can Pittsburgh beat Baltimore without Roethlisberger? Let's crunch some numbers and try to make a determination.
BALTIMORE RAVENS at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8:20 p.m. on NBC)
Las Vegas Spread: Baltimore by 3.5, total of 40.5
You saw a huge market move in this game, as professional wagerers expressed their lack of support for Leftwich in dramatic fashion. Home field advantages is worth three points. This current price is suggesting Baltimore would be favored by 6.5 points at a neutral site, and by almost 10 points at home. Is Leftwich THAT much worse than Roethlisberger?
WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Baltimore: 7-2 (30th ranked schedule)
Pittsburgh: 6-3 (31st ranked schedule)
Interesting that both teams have played extremely soft schedules this year, meaning both are a big overrated in the big picture. That's another angle for you sports bettors to consider here. We get the skepticism about Leftwich. Why all the love for Baltimore? This might be a 5-4 team against a league average schedule...and a 5-4 team shouldn't be laying more than a field goal on the road to too many opponents.
Baltimore's done a good job in the risk-reward area this year while opening up their passing attack. One of the big dangers of throwing way downfield more often is that it creates more turnovers on picks or quarterback sacks. So far so good for the Ravens, though it's come against a very easy schedule. Pittsburgh has improved on last year's disappointing numbers, but don't really grade out well considering how easy their slate has been. You have to assume that Leftwich will be more mistake-prone than Big Ben, though the team will likely keep things relatively simple this week in hopes of avoiding turnovers.
Baltimore: 354.1 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play
Pittsburgh: 354.1 yards-per-game on 5.3 yards-per-play
Interesting that we have a dead heat in yards-per-game but not in yards-per-play. Baltimore is capable of the long strike. Pittsburgh tries to grind things out more. Pittsburgh runs a few more plays per game as a result. You have to assume a hit of at least 50 yards with the switch to Leftwich. Do you agree with the markets that it's going to be a lot more than that.
Baltimore: 390.2 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play
Pittsburgh: 265.7 yards-per-game on 4.7 yards-per-play
Wow...huge edge on defense for the Steelers. Baltimore's defense has been a disappointment this year in terms of past standards. That's been hidden because they're still winning games against a soft schedule. Maybe it won't be all that hard for Leftwich to move the ball against THIS defense. And, maybe Joe Flacco will find it difficult to connect on his passes on the road against one of the best defenses in the league. The evidence to this point is reminding everyone to think about Baltimore's part of this equation. Can they score enough to coast to a cover on the road in this spot?
MOST RECENT BOXES
BALTIMORE 55, OAKLAND 20
Total Yardage: Oakland 422, Baltimore 419
Rushing Yards: Oakland 72, Baltimore 78
Passing Stats: Oakland 29-46-1-350, Baltimore 21-34-1-341
Turnovers: Oakland 3, Baltimore 1
Third Downs: Oakland 44%, Baltimore 42%
Vegas Line: Baltimore by 7.5, total of 42
Baltimore played well here, AND also benefited from a lot of cheap points. You can't break 50 points in the NFL without getting some gifts from your opponents. That being said, Baltimore was very efficient with their offensive yardage on a day full of productive drives. If the Ravens play like this again, then Pittsburgh doesn't have much of a chance to compete. The question is...can Baltimore execute at a high level against a very good defense? Flacco has traditionally excelled vs. the worst defenses, only to lay eggs vs. the best defenses when a lot was on the line.
PITTSBURGH 16, KANSAS CITY 13 (in overtime)
Total Yardage: Kansas City 290, Pittsburgh 249
Rushing Yards: Kansas City 142, Pittsburgh 95
Passing Stats: Kansas City 11-26-2-148, Pittsburgh 16-32-0-154
Turnovers: Kansas City 1, Pittsburgh 1
Third Downs: Kansas City 15%, Pittsburgh 38%
Vegas Line: Pittsburgh by 12.5, total of 41.5
Pittsburgh has a knack for playing down to the level of their opponents. That was happening in this one before Roethlisberger got hurt. They did rally for a win, against a team that may be focused on making sure they lose right now to stay at the front of the line for the #1 draft pick. If Pittsburgh's offense doesn't play better than this, they'll lose by at least two touchdowns. Given Kansas City's recent form, what Pittsburgh was doing before the injury represented some of their worst football of the year. Maybe they were looking ahead to Baltimore and Cleveland...which isn't out of the question when a weak opponent comes to visit.
Given all the data, you'd have to think that a defensive struggle is the best expectation. It's a night game on an iffy field with the home team having a great defense. The visitor's defense is vulnerable...but the host is hoping a rusty veteran quarterback can make a few plays. That suggests a slobberknocker where both spend the first half trying to hurt each other and avoid mistakes, followed by a second half where big plays determine who wins and covers.
JIM HURLEY has been studying the career of Leftwich very closely to get a read on how he's likely to perform in this spot. The straight up result...the pointspread result...and any value currently existing in the market really does revolve all around him. If he produces, Pittsburgh wins straight up. If not, they lose. Turnover differential could turn a tight game into a blowout in either direction. He's also been checking with his on site sources to see how much of the flat KC effort was from a lookahead to this showcase showdown.
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Back with you tomorrow to run the numbers in Chicago-San Francisco for Monday Night Football. Make sure you're building your bankroll for the annual TURKEY SHOOT Sunday and Monday with Hurley's best in the NFL!
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