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Steelers stay on short list of Super Bowl contenders

Jeff Fogle
VSiN City newsletter

Pittsburgh picks off Marcus Mariota four times on the way to a 40-17 Thursday night thrashing. That plus weekend football previews and the Celtics’ shocker over the Warriors will wrap up the week in VSiN City.

Thursday NFL: Pittsburgh’s defense was way too much for Tennessee and Mariota
We might have had an electric finish if Marcus Mariota hadn’t kept throwing the ball to the wrong team. Even with an evening of miscues, Tennessee was within 23-17 entering the fourth quarter before Pittsburgh put away its eighth win of the season.

Pittsburgh (-7) 40 Tennessee 17 
Yards-per-Play: Tennessee 5.3, Pittsburgh 5.1
Total Yards: Tennessee 316, Pittsburgh 349
Third Down Pct: Tennessee 38%, Pittsburgh 33%
Rushing Yards: Tennessee 52, Pittsburgh 65
Passing Stats: Tennessee 22-34-4-264, Pittsburgh 30-45-0-284
Turnovers: Tennessee 4, Pittsburgh 0
Touchdown Drive Lengths: Tennessee 68-75, Pittsburgh 75-75-75-51

A messy game to describe. And, honestly, the stats don’t really paint the picture. It’s tempting to call this a “turnover blowout” because so many of the other categories were even. A fair point. But Pittsburgh did win first downs 25-17 while playing much cleaner football. That counts for something. Earning 25 first downs while NOT turnover the ball over can get the job done in this league, particularly when you’re confident your own defense can keep rattling the opposing quarterback to set up cheap points. Plus, 75 of Tennessee’s yards came on one big pass play to start the second half. The Titans only totaled 241 yards on 4.1 YPP without that lightning strike.

In terms of postseason potential…Pittsburgh wasn’t as good as the final score made it look, but is still very much on the short list of Super Bowl hopefuls. The Steelers save their best for their toughest opponents. Tennessee isn’t ready yet, as we discussed yesterday when talking about its disappointing stats against a soft schedule. Tennessee has the stat pedigree of a non-playoff team. And, we now have confirmation that its QB still gets rattled under pressure. 

Pittsburgh moves to 8-2 on the season, and still has firm control of its destiny in terms of a #1 seed and a bye because the Steelers host New England. Tennessee falls to 6-4 against a soft schedule. Looks like a few pretenders will get into the AFC brackets. The Wildcard chase might only feature pretenders!  

We’ll talk more football in a second. First let’s wrap up the Thursday “big game” headlines…

Thursday NBA: Sizzling Celtics rally from 17 down to beat the Warriors!
Wow. Even the most die-hard Boston Celtics fans assumed their team’s 13-game winning streak would be coming to an end Thursday vs. the defending World Champion Golden State Warriors. When Steph Curry and company led by 17 points in the third quarter, it was a virtual lock.

Then, Boston erased that 17-point deficit in the most efficient way possible…scoring 17 straight points! Golden State led 66-49 with 4:59 left in the third quarter. It was tied at 66 with 1:22 to go in the same period.

Don’t ever count Brad Stevens out of a game. Or Kyrie Irving for that matter. Or, any young hustling team that’s prioritizing defense in one of its most important home games of the season. Let’s see how they did it. 

Boston (plus 7) 92, Golden State 88
Two-Point Pct: Golden State 46%, Boston 40%
Three-Pointers: Golden State 10/32, Boston 7/32
Free Throws: Golden State 12/19, Boston 33/38
Rebounds: Golden State 47, Boston 52
Turnovers: Golden State 15, Boston 15

Obviously, that’s a very low scoring game by today’s NBA standards. You knew it had to be a defensive struggle. The Over/Under was 219…so it stayed Under by 39 points. 

Two main keys to Boston’s win…

DEFENSE: The Celtics did enough to disrupt both of The Splash Brothers to keep a win within reach. Steph Curry was just 2 of 9 on treys, 3 of 14 overall. Klay Thompson was 3 of 11 on treys, 5 of 18 overall. Sure, there’s some luck involved with that. But hustling defense makes its own luck. The market expected the Warriors to score 113. Boston held them 25 points below that.

FREE THROWS: That probably jumped right out at you above. Winning points 33-12 on 38-19 attempts is a huge advantage. Was some “home cooking” involved? Possibly. Warriors fans will yell YES! But, much of that is a different in styles. Golden State whips the ball around to open shooters, which reduces the number of shooting fouls that might be drawn. Boston kept attacking the basket. Most amazing about the Celtics free throw count is that no single player attempted double digits from the charity stripe, while NINE different players shot at least two. So, it wasn’t one player doing all the damage. The plan, as a team, was to attack the basket and dare the Warriors not to foul them. Boston was worse than GS on two-pointers and three-pointers, a reminder that the defending league champs are much better at defense (still) than the mainstream media gives them credit for. 

Boston moves to 14-2 with the win, with an ATS mark of 11-2-1 through the 14-game winning streak against skeptical (but adjusting) market prices. Golden State falls to 11-4 (7-8 ATS), still well clear of the field in overall talent and championship likelihood. 

Saturday College Football: Stat preview of #24 Michigan (8-2) at #5 Wisconsin (10-0)
No blockbusters in college football this weekend. There might be an upset or two in non-blockbusters if any of the contenders take their eyes off the ball. The Michigan/Wisconsin matchup kind of melds those in the middle. It’s a battle of teams ranked in the top 25 of the Playoff Poll (though it’s possible Michigan doesn’t even deserve to be in the top 40). And, if Wisconsin doesn’t bring it’s “A” game, the Badgers are certainly capable of being upset as 7.5-point favorites. 

Let’s run our key indicator stats…

Yards-per-Play
Michigan: 5.6 on offense, 4.3 on defense (vs #56 schedule)
Wisconsin: 6.3 on offense, 4.2 on defense (vs #63 schedule)

Wisconsin has been rightfully condemned for its soft schedule. It’s been much less widely reported that Michigan has also played an easy slate. The opener with Florida turned out to be against a non-entity. Michigan's SOS ranking will improve after playing Wisconsin and Ohio State here late in the season. Both teams have played great defense against their weak slates. Michigan’s YPP differential is plus 1.3, compared to plus 2.1 for Wisconsin. We’ll see how both perform vs. a national power like the Buckeyes soon enough. Both might be on the “go-against” list come bowl time unless they run into opponents who can’t stop the run. Speaking of that…

National Rushing Rankings
Michigan: #40 per carry, #31 per game; #13 per-carry defense, #9 per-game defense
Wisconsin: #22 per carry, #17 per game, #5 per-carry defense, #1 per-game defense

Both teams emphasize the point of attack. Wisconsin runs the ball 68% of the time, which ranks #8 in the nation, #3 if you don’t count the five teams that run the triple option. Michigan runs the ball 61% of the time, which ranks #26. Often, when the Wolverines don’t run the ball, their fans wish they did! We have fantastic run defenses here, which could create an offensive dead-heat. If both teams fall short of making a first down…it doesn’t matter much if Wisconsin pushed the ball slightly further ahead before its punt. 

Passing Stats
Michigan: 6.8 yards-per-attempt, 8 TD’s, 7 INT
Wisconsin: 9.0 yards-per-attempt, 17 TD’s, 12 INT

Wisconsin has a knack for busting long TD plays out of swing passes or other routes that catch defensive secondaries overly focused on the run. Michigan has not developed that knack, despite having a former NFL quarterback as a head coach. You see above that Wisconsin has more negative risk with that extra reward. This quarterback is interception prone whenever he tries to do more than his limited passing skill set allows. Not much of an exaggeration to say the key to the cover will be whether Wisconsin busts that long pass play without any miscues…or fails to bust any long pass plays while making miscues. Football makes for a great gambling sport because of such internal randomness.

Impact Defense 
Michigan: 24% third down pct-allowed, 13 takeaways, 33 sacks
Wisconsin: 29% third down pct-allowed, 22 takeaways, 35 sacks

Wow…you have to respect defenses that are holding opponents below 30% on third down tries this deep into the season, even if it hasn’t come against tough schedules. You can see that both front sevens get a lot of sacks. Michigan is more focused on forcing punts than taking the ball away. This game could get away from the Wolverines if they’re mistake-prone early on the road in front of a rabid crowd. 

If you’ve been following the markets or VSiN programming all week, you know that sharps bet Michigan and the Under against the openers of Wisconsin -10 and 43. The team side dropped very quickly down to Wisconsin -7.5. The total is now 39. Some of that Over/Under drop is weather related. The current forecast is for cool temperatures in the low 40s, a slight chance of rain, and winds in the 10-15 mph range. That might make the coaches even more hesitant than usual to put the ball in the air, leading to a smash mouth battle of punts. 

All told…the lines look to be sitting where they should be (unless the weather worsens in a way that drops “the right number” on the total to 36 or 37. If you’re picking Michigan, you’ll need to root for an untrustworthy offense to get something on the board on the road at a tough site against a great defense in what might be difficult scoring weather. If you’re picking Wisconsin, you might need to bust one or two of those surprising long pass plays to get meaningful scoreboard clearance. 

Enjoy the game. Best of luck on your final betting choice(s).

Weekend NFL: Quickie previews for marquee attractions
The football blockbusters this week are actually Sunday and Monday night in the NFL. So, we threw together abbreviated stat lines for the games many of you will be focused on. The strength of schedule rankings come from Jeff Sagarin’s publicly posted data at USA Today

LA Rams: 6.1 on offense, 5.1 on defense (vs. the #30 schedule)
Minnesota: 5.6 on offense, 4.7 on defense (vs. the #16 schedule)

Part of the Rams' success story this season has been keyed by playing an easy schedule. Yes, there’s definitely REAL improvement on offense, and Jared Goff is climbing the learning curve very quickly. That said…it’s easier to go 7-2 when you’re playing one of the three worst schedules in the league. Minnesota is plus 0.9 in YPP vs. a league average schedule, which is the more impressive performance. Also, if you like using defense as a “tie-breaker” when differentials are even (some sharps weigh their metrics more heavily toward defense), that would point to the Vikings as well. Really, a GREAT test for Goff’s playoff potential at this site vs. this top defense. Minnesota is a two-point favorite, with a total of 46.

New England: 6.0 on offense, 6.5 on defense (vs. the #13 schedule)
Oakland: 5.6 on offense, 5.8 on defense (vs. the #23 schedule)

This game is in Mexico City. New England’s defensive start to the season was so horrific that its YPP will be warped the rest of the way. Probably better to think of them as a 6.0 on defense that’s going to tighten up in the red zone. Going back the past few weeks, opponents have scored only16, 13, 7, 17, and 14 even though the Pats have been allowing some yards. The Patriots are always a favorite to win turnover differential because Tom Brady plays low-risk football while opponents often have to pass from behind to stay in the game. That reality plus the schedule strength advantage suggests that the market is in the right neighborhood with its current pricing. New England is -7, with a total of 55.

Philadelphia: 5.7 on offense, 5.1 on defense (vs. the #29 schedule)
Dallas: 5.6 on offense, 5.2 on defense (vs. the #19 schedule)

Like the Rams, Philadelphia has made headlines with a great young quarterback while too many pundits are ignoring the soft strength of schedule. Dallas is less scary without Ezekiel Elliott (seemingly throwing in the towel in the second half in Atlanta last week), which makes them a dicey home underdog. This is the Sunday night game on NBC. Philadelphia is -4.5, with a total of 44.5.

Atlanta: 6.1 on offense, 5.0 on defense (vs. the #11 schedule)
Seattle: 5.6 on offense, 5.0 on defense (vs. the #31 schedule)

Atlanta’s YPP differential is even more impressive once you adjust for strength of schedule. Though, as we keep having to point out with the Falcons’ goofy YPP this season…they haven’t really played to their differential until that win over Dallas last week. Seattle has some extra prep time, and a strong home field for this Monday nighter. Great test for both in terms of playoff readiness. Though, as we discuss this week in Point Spread Weekly, it’s possible neither will survive the crowded NFC race to reach the brackets. 

All told, a nice appetizer for next week’s holiday football feast…and all the upcoming drama in the championship chase at both the college and pro levels. 

If you haven’t yet subscribed to Point Spread Weekly, taking care of that right now will get you previews for every single board game in the colleges and NFL. You also get insights and picks from VSiN personalities and PSW staff. As we just mentioned, VSiN City provides an exclusive expanded Monday Night stat preview. Click here to get on board. Just $49.99 for the full season. 

Follow the latest from VSiN this weekend by downloading our app, and by following us on twitter. If you have any comments or questions about anything in the VSiN universe, please drop us a note or post your thoughts in the Facebook widget below. 

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