We won’t know for sure whether or not the Patriots are resting their starters in Week 17 until the final whistle Sunday against the Dolphins. That’s the nature of rooting for a team coached by Bill Belichick. As of right now though, the internet/sports radio guessing machines seem to suggest that the Pats won’t rest their starters in the season’s final week. That’s the right call.
It’s logical to think, “The Pats lost out on homefield advantage last year, and they probably would’ve beaten the Broncos if the AFC Championship had been in Foxboro and not Denver, so they shouldn’t let history repeat itself.” That’s fair, but that’s actually not the reason that the Pats need to lock up the 1 seed. Let’s be real, the Pats should beat the Raiders by a touchdown or two even if the game is in Oakland. Derek Carr is a damn good quarterback, and Matt McGloin is definitely not a damn good quarterback. Oakland is currently ranked 8th in total DVOA according to Football Outsiders, but that’s only because their 7th ranked defense buoys their 22nd ranked defense (and 13th ranked special teams.) That #7 ranking is gonna drop juuuuust a little bit, and we shouldn’t be concerned about New England traveling to Oakland.
There is another opponent lurking, however, that should worry you. If the Pats fall to the 2 seed on Sunday, then they’ll most likely have to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round. While that game promises to be an incredible one, and while the NFL would be thrilled for the ratings it would bring, it’s a very scary game for the Patriots.
Remember, even when the Pats beat the Steel Curtain in October, the game was in doubt for a large portion of the contest. The Steelers had the ball down 14-10 in the 3rd quarter, and luckily they only got a field goal on that drive. The Pats then faced a 3rd and 7 from the outskirts of Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal range, and Brady connected with Gronk for a 36 yard TD pass. From that point on, New England was in control, and the Steelers were done.
Here’s the thing: Big Ben wasn’t playing in that game, and Rob Gronkowski was. Even though the Pats would be facing the Steelers in the playoffs in Foxborough, the Ben/Gronk swap makes a bigger difference than homefield advantage, as important as that is.
The Steelers can drop 40 points on any defense in the league, and their porous defense (which surprisingly ranks 9th on Football Outsiders) will look much less susceptible when they don’t have to prepare for Gronk. The Steelers are clearly the toughest matchup for the Patriots among the AFC teams in the postseason, and Pats fans should root hard for the Pats to not have to face them in the playoffs. That 2-3 game scares me, and it should scare you too. Root for the Pats to win on Sunday so that they don’t have to face the Steelers in the Divisional Round.
I may be posting on 4 games from around the NFL, but this is primarily a Boston sports website first, so let’s acknowledge one thing: Any Patriots fan who isn’t rooting for the Steelers is a fool. Check Football Outsiders’ end of the season DVOA rankings, which I will be using throughout the playoff to determine just how good each team is.
The Ravens are the 5th best team by these rankings, and the Pats are 4th. The Ravens also have the 3rd best point differential in the AFC, behind the Pats and then Broncos, and that’s exactly how I’d rate the teams. The Pats are first, the team I’m most scared of is in Denver, then the Ravens, and then after that there’s a big drop off. Baltimore also knows how to win at Gillette, having done it twice in the past 6 seasons, so any mystique that surrounds the Patriots at home in January doesn’t mean anything to them.
Now, the Pats should be able to take advantage of Baltimore’s biggest weak spot, its secondary. Especially in the middle of the field, the Ravens are swiss cheese, so I expect a huge game from Gronk if these teams do play on January 10. But the Pats can’t take advantage of that weakness as much as we’d like them to, and the Ravens pass rush definitely worries me. So let’s pray that the Steelers take them down. That would be a perfect scenario for the Pats, as they would only have to face 1 of the 3 toughest teams in the AFC in their 2 pre-Super Bowl games, as the Steelers would knock out the Ravens, and then they and the Broncos would knock each other out in a hopefully brutal game right before the Pats welcome either of them to Foxboro.
Now, onto the actual games. For each pick, I’m going to pick both straight up and vs. the spread. I’ll be using the lines from sportsbook.com.
Steelers over Ravens straight up,
Ravens +3.5 over Steelers
Unfortunately, I feel much more confident in the latter pick than the former. Ravens are 5th in total DVOA, Steelers are 8th. Also, no Le’veon Bell. In fact, the main factor that makes me pick the Steelers overall is that I think Antonio Brown will absolutely go off during this game against the horrible Ravens secondary. If you can find a prop bet with Antonio Brown’s yardage, bet the over.
These two teams usually play each other close, and, esepcially without Bell, this should be another close one. So long as the line is outside of 3 points, which it is, the right play is definitely to take the points. My guess is the Steelers win a close 3 point game behind Roethlisberger and Brown, sending a banged up Steelers team to Denver the following week. But again, I’m much more confident in picking the Ravens with the spread than picking the Steelers overall.
Colts over Bengals straight up,
Colts -4 over Bengals.
I wavered a little on the spread pick, but ultimately I decided on betting on the Colts to win by a touchdown or so for one simple reason: No A.J. Green. With the rushing aspect of the game, I’m really tempted to take the Bengals, who are 13th in total DVOA to Indy at 12. But the Bengals are 19th in rushing defense, which would be bad except for the fact that the Colts’ running back is Trent Richardson. He doesn’t put the fear of God into anybody. Meanwhile, the Colts have the 28th ranked rush defense, and Jeremy Hill is actually good. So I wouldn’t stop you from picking the Bengals, but again, no A.J. Green.
Part of me wants to take the Bengals just so the talking heads will shut up about Andy Dalton in primetime or the playoffs. That shit is really starting to annoy me. But… no A.J. Green. For Dalton to get rid of those demons, he’s gotta have someone to throw to. If Green’s concussion symptoms miraculously leave overnight, then I reserve the right to change this pick — and I will.
But frankly, either way this game is a stay away. I’d feel much better about betting both the Ravens against the spread and the Steelers to win, then hoping for a middle ground. Feel much better about that one.