New England at Pittsburgh: It was a cold December day when the New England Patriots took the field in the Steel City last year. Brady vs. Roethlisberger. The genius coach against the not-a-genius coach. Perhaps the biggest game of the year in the AFC. For precious minutes as the game was ending, it appeared that the Steelers had pulled off their ninth consecutive victory with a last-second touchdown pass to Jesse James. But it was not to be. James, the officials ruled, had not “completed the process.”
What that process was no one ever actually figured out. That play, as much as anything, ended the fiasco of the “process” — too late for the heartbroken Steelers.
So, yeah, this is a revenge game. For whatever that’s worth. And I’d say it’s not worth as much as a great coach against a coach who, after 12 years at the helm of the Steelers, has yet to figure out that it’s legal to call a timeout even if your team does not possess the ball. I know, I know — a truly ineffable concept.
So, then, what do we make of the bizarre losses by each of these teams last week? Well, for one thing, the nearly infallible Belichick made a very fallible mistake, which started with using the clumsy and so very slow Rob Gronkowski as a defender against defense a presumed Hail Mary pass as time expired. This was a serious misjudgment. For one thing, with the ball on Miami’s 47-yard line, lame-armed quarterback Ryan Tannehill wasn’t even capable of throwing the ball that far. Thus he threw a pass about 30 yards shy of the end zone, and after a couple of laterals, Kenyan Drake shot past half the defenders and finally darted into the end zone past the hilariously lunging Gronk for the winning touchdown. Game over.
I’m pretty sure Belichick had the good sense to be embarrassed. Tomlin? Probably not. Just in case you missed it: Oakland, trailing by 21-17, had the ball at the Pittsburgh 7 with 1:57 left. No problem — the Steelers had two remaining timeouts. In all likelihood, they were going to get the ball back with maybe 90 seconds left. Plenty of time to get down the field if the Raiders scored a TD to go ahead by 3. Which they did. But Tomlin didn’t use his timeouts. Oh, eventually he used one — after an Oakland incomplete pass.
And so it was that the Steelers finally got the ball back with 21 seconds left. Thanks to a hook-and-lateral play, they were able to try a 40-yard field goal that would have tied the game as the clock expires. But feckless kicker Chris Boswell, who should have been given his walking papers long ago, slipped. Tomlin had pulled off another miraculous loss.
None of this is a solid indicator of which team is going to win on Sunday, which is one day short of the anniversary of Pittsburgh’s horrific loss in New England last year. But it does help us understand how the team with the fourth best offense in the NFL has failed to cover four straight games, and lost outright in three straight.
Maybe they will avenge that loss, but it’s worth noting that the Steelers got 141 total yards from Le’Veon Bell in last year’s game. Not only is Bell MIA, but his capable backup, James Conner is injured.
The Patriots are at full strength, except that Gronkowski is pretty much lame (but still very large, and with clamps for hands). New England lost half of its offensive assets between seasons, and Brady’s most trusted receiver, Julian Edelman, has lost a step or two.
So things have changed, but the most important thing for me is that the coaches remain the same.
New England at Pittsburgh
Finally, there’s the Patriots-off-a-loss angle. For what it’s worth, since 2010, the Patriots are 20-7-1 vs. the spread after losing. The worst negative I can find is that every tout in the somewhat free world is picking Belichick to cover. And that, of course, is a substantial negative.
The pick: Patriots 27, Steelers 20 — New England minus-2 1/2 for $40
(Footnote: After I wrote this compelling analysis, I learned that the Patriots, favored by a single point when I sat down at my keyboard, had ballooned to a 2 1/2-point favorite. Forced to choose between probably losing my mythical money or having to abandon these precious words, I chose imaginary poverty. Misplaced priorities, without a doubt, or perhaps sheer laziness. I’m guilty of both.)
Arizona at Atlanta
Atlanta’s hopes died a month ago, but one thing remains constant: Matt Ryan is getting pummeled more than ever before, and it shows. The Falcons haven’t scored more than 20 points in their most recent five games, but that’s not the worst of it. What’s worse is that Ryan has been hit 97 times, more than any other quarterback in the NFL. And there’s not much incentive for him to keep on getting smacked. Meanwhile, the sullen Cardinals have recorded 39 sacks, seventh in the league.
As for Arizona’s offense…it doesn’t really exist. The Falcons have put up 178 points, the least in the NFL. They’ve scored more than 21 points once this year. Josh Rosen might not be the worst quarterback in the league, but he’s the slowest. This is nothing new for the Cardinals. They’re on a 29-9-1 Under run.
The pick: Falcons 17, Cardinals 10 — Under 44 for $40
Dallas at Indianapolis: The Colts now seem to be the darlings of the AFC, which is understandable. After a 1-5 start, they’ve won six of their most recent seven games, although they’re 2-2-1 vs. the number in their last five. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have not only won but covered five straight. Much of that success is the result of the acquisition of Amari Cooper, who has erupted for 473 yards and five touchdowns in his last three contests. I like both teams, so I’m taking the live dog.
The pick: Cowboys 24, Colts 23 — Dallas plus-3 for $50