Thanks to quarterback Tom Brady, the New England Patriots are 3-point favorites this week in Pittsburgh, where the National Football League’s top-ranked passing offense tangles with the No. 1 pass defense.
The Steelers haven’t been a bigger underdog at home in the past 10 years, according to RJ Bell, founder and chief executive of Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
Brady, a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, has a 6-1 record against the Steelers, and has passed for 749 yards with seven touchdowns during his past two games -- both wins -- against Pittsburgh’s defense.
“The Patriots are ideally suited to take on the Steelers’ defense,” Brian Billick, a Super Bowl-winning coach with the Baltimore Ravens and now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports and the NFL Network, said in a telephone interview. “If you spread them out, you spread their pressures, you’re able to identify their pressures more readily and get the matchups you want across the board. That’s exactly what Tom Brady does so well.”
Behind Brady, the Patriots lead the league with 350.4 passing yards a game during their 5-1 start. The Steelers, led on defense by All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, have allowed an average of 172 passing yards, tied with Cleveland for the fewest in the NFL. The Patriots and Steelers (5-2) have the two best records in the American Football Conference.
Brady, 34 and in his 12th NFL season, said he has great respect for the Steelers’ defense, which helped carry them to two Super Bowl appearances in the past three years. Brady threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns in a 39-26 win over the Steelers in Week 9 last season, when both teams entered the game with 6-2 records.
That victory, in Pittsburgh, sparked the Patriots’ eight-game winning streak to end the regular season.
“It’s just execution -- it’s guys getting open and us completing it,” Brady told reporters. “There’s no special thing that we do. There’s no magic dust we put in our cereal in the morning or anything like that. We just played really well.”
The 2007 matchup between New England and Pittsburgh also featured the NFL’s top passing offense and defense. Brady completed 32 of 46 passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-13 romp in New England.
“He’s just a winner,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who’s second on the team with 30 tackles. “Guys believe and that shows on the field. Also, he has the physical attributes of being able to make every throw and being intelligent enough to read the defense and know where the ball is supposed to go.”
In last year’s meeting, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for 387 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns, and Pittsburgh came back from a 23-3 deficit. Roethlisberger has thrown the ball more frequently this season and the Steelers rank ninth of 32 teams in passing yards, while the Patriots have surrendered an NFL-high 322 passing yards a game.
“Roethlisberger is also well-suited to face the Patriots’ defense, which has been gashed before,” Billick said. “The way Roethlisberger extends plays, he’s going to stretch some of those defensive concepts of (Patriots coach) Bill Belichick. This could be a track meet.”
The Week 8 schedule also features a matchup of the league’s top rushing offense and No. 1 rush defense as the Philadelphia Eagles host the Dallas Cowboys in the Sunday night game.
The Eagles have averaged 170 rushing yards a game, yet are in last place in the National Football Conference’s East Division with a 2-4 record. The Cowboys, who are 3-3, are giving up an average of 69.7 rushing yards.
The Eagles and Cowboys remain tied with the New York Giants, who lead the NFC East with a 4-2 record and host winless Miami this week, with 25-1 odds of winning the Super Bowl. No other team without a winning record has better odds of winning the championship than Dallas or Philadelphia.
“I don’t like the Cowboys,” said Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, whose team is a 3-point favorite among Las Vegas oddsmakers. “We circle these games on our schedule every year. It’s huge for the fans and for the players.”