A pair of dangerous NFL dark horses square off tonight when the Carolina Panthers (6-2) visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2-1) in a battle of overlooked thoroughbreds (FOX, 8:20 p.m.).
Most media has focused its Super Bowl horse race coverage on the Los Angeles Rams (and more recently, New Orleans) in the NFC…and New England and Kansas City in the AFC. But both the Panthers and Steelers have been showing high-quality form of late.
Panthers on the Prowl (last 3 games)
Carolina (plus 5) won at Philadelphia 21-17
Carolina (plus 2.5) beat Baltimore 36-21
Carolina (-6) beat Tampa Bay 42-28
Those are point spread covers of 9, 17.5, and 8 points. And, they were backed up by solid stats. Sharps pay attention to box scores! Carolina outgained Philadelphia 371-342 on 6.4 to 5.3 in yards-per-play, Baltimore 386-325 on 6.1 to 5.1, and Tampa Bay 407-301 on 6.9 to 4.6. Those yards-per-play performances were more impressive than the final scores.
Carolina was a composite underdog in the three-game sampling, yet crushed stats while winning scoreboard 99-66.
Pittsburgh’s been just as powerful, covering its last four games by a touchdown or more…
Men of Steel (last 4 games)
Pittsburgh (-3.5) beat Atlanta 41-17
Pittsburgh (plus 2) won at Cincinnati 28-21
Pittsburgh (-8) beat Cleveland 33-18
Pittsburgh (plus 2) won at Baltimore 23-16
Point spread covers of 20.5, 9, 7, and 9 with two road underdog victories over divisional rivals. A composite victory of 125-72 with only one league doormat in the mix.
And, again, the stats are largely more impressive than the scoreboard. Pittsburgh outgained Atlanta 381-324 on 6.6 to 4.6 yards-per-play, Cincinnati 481-275 on 7.2 to 4.7 (how was that game close?!), Cleveland 421-237 ono 6.2 to 4.0, and Baltimore 395-268 on 5.2 to 4.8.
It’s very unlikely that Panthers/Steelers is a Super Bowl preview. But, it’s certainly a well-timed battle of forces performing at the high end of “playoff caliber” football.
It’s also a battle of offenses who have thrived recently in red zone performance. Carolina has converted 12 of its last 13 red zone chances to move to #5 in the league for the season. Pittsburgh is 11 of 15 the past month, allowing it to hold steady at #2 in the NFL. As we’ve discussed in the past, offenses with varied weaponry and creative options in close have a chance to create scoreboard distance from opponents who don’t in a way that can provide betting value. (Note that the Giants and Jets currently rank #31 and #32 this season in red zone offense.)
Sharps have been betting underdog Carolina so far at anything higher than plus 4. Cam Newton is a quarterback who can hang tough on the road or rally from behind. Will the money stop at plus 4? Monitor game day line moves for the answer.
Totals bettors hit the Over at 50 and 51. Stores testing 52 midweek have seen buy back on the Under that brought the price back to 51.5.
While you watch tonight's game, look for keys that might signal sustained success through the winter for either side. Carolina and Pittsburgh have combined to beat the market at a combined 75% clip over their last six games each. Maybe one of these dark horses is about to chase down a front runner.