The numbers stare out at the Pittsburgh Steelers like a surprise report card — +1.5 at DraftKings and + 2 at FanDuel — as they visit the Buffalo Bills Sunday night.
The Steelers as an underdog?
Monday’s developments — Pittsburgh losing its first game of the season 23-17 to the Washington Football Team and Buffalo handcuffing the San Francisco 49ers 34-24 — make the Bills slight favorites for this game.
The Bills are the AFC East leaders at 9-3, and a strong team.
The over-under line of 46.5 appeals to alternate-line bettors at West Virginia online sportsbooks on both sides. It’s Pittsburgh’s strong defense against a Buffalo offense that can light it up. There’s no inherent edge in that line, although Bills Stadium averages 53 points in its games. Sunday’s early forecast was for rain and winds about 15 mph, just on the cusp of impacting passing games.
Under bettors can take an alternate line into the low 50s, and over bettors can take it down to the low 40s. The bets would have to be combined with others to create favorable odds.
Steelers Playoffs Outlook
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin embraced the absence of pressure for Pittsburgh to duplicate the 1972 Miami Dolphins and 2007 New England Patriots in amassing perfect regular seasons. He spoke of preparing for the next challenge, overcoming adversity, and taking another step in the process.
Heck, just having quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back in the wake of last season’s non-playoff 8-8 mark was a major plus two months ago. Now, this team has Super Bowl aspirations.
From Tomlin’s perspective, the Steelers have a four-game, end-of-season mission, not just one game. Their finishing stretch includes matchups with the Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns, three likely playoff teams, along with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Yes, the playoffs have expanded, and only the top seed in each conference earns a first-round bye. What Pittsburgh will weigh is the value of the bye in a fight against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs versus the health of its team.
Playoff Byes and Wild Cards
Barring postponements, here’s how the playoff picture looks.
The No. 1 seed in the AFC and NFC earns a bye, while the No. 2 seed plays No. 7, No. 3 plays No. 6 and No. 4 plays No. 5 in the wild card round. The top four seeds, and hosting rights, go to the division winners, while the three teams with the next-best records are wild cards. This also means the first playoff round has six games rather than four, a welcome sight for bettors and the sportsbooks.
Steelers Weak Points to Watch
Here’s an assessment of where Pittsburgh stands now:
-The defense is stout, but leaking a little in the fourth quarter of recent games against the Baltimore Ravens and Washington. Opposing quarterbacks are exploiting openings on the right flat.
-The receivers are dropping passes. Many of them. These have been right on the number, too. This is not a structural problem, it’s more of a concentration issue, and can be easily solved. Pittsburgh’s offense relies on the short pass, often using it like a first-down run.
This is the deepest receiving corps in the NFL, with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Juju Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron having big seasons. They also may soon be adjusting in another way. Watch for opposing defenses to try removing the short crossing routes, daring Roethlisberger to throw deep. That’s why Claypool is always a viable “anytime scorer” in betting props.
-Rest Roethlisberger? He took a vicious hit against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9 and had to go to the dressing room. He has compensated with quick releases, but Roethlisberger has been playing hurt for more than a month. The Steelers can’t go far in the postseason without him, so be aware of that on the betting line. Roethlisberger is a warrior, and always wants to go, but Tomlin may rein him in, if any of the last couple games don’t matter.
-No running game. You loved it as a FanDuel in-game prop bettor taking the over 44 for Roethlisberger’s pass attempts Monday — he had 53 — but the absence of a running game is problematic. Expect the Steelers to at least show it down the stretch, to protect Roethlisberger and make opponents prepare for something.
–The bizarre. When do you see the Steelers not get points from first-and-goal at their opponent’s 1-yard line, as happened Monday? When does fourth down from field-goal range in a tied game prompt a fourth-quarter gamble? Tomlin rolled the dice and lost on that one, with the missed conversion leading to Washington’s game-winning drive. What’s understated about these situations is the confidence it gives opposing teams once an opportunity has been denied.
That’s how Pittsburgh, previously 78-1-1 at Heinz Field, and with a 14-0 lead, saw that lead become a 23-17 loss Monday.
Steelers Strengths to Watch
All that said, here’s what Tomlin has in his pocket:
-The Steelers are still a strong, sure-tackling team. The defense pressures opponents into mistakes, and can score. It notched a defensive touchdown in both victories against the Baltimore Ravens and they proved decisive.
-Roethlisberger makes quick decisions and is getting the ball out of his hands faster than at any point in his career. The line has protected him well; he rarely gets sacked.
-Pittsburgh has the luxury of seeing what it can get from running back James Conner, both as a runner and receiver, before the postseason begins. Having either component will add more potency to this offense.
-What’s wrong with 11-1? Almost nothing.
-The Steelers are hopeful of having Conner (COVID-19 list) and kicker Chris Boswell (hip) back in time for this game. Boswell is one of the game’s best kickers. He is 18 for 19 this season, has made a 59-yarder in Dallas, and previously nailed a 53-yard bomb at Heinz Field, where it is tough to kick because of swirling winds.