EDITOR’S NOTE: THE FOLLOWING WAS WRITTEN PRIOR TO REPORTS THAT THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS WILL REST BEN ROETHLISBERGER, LE’VEON BELL, AND OTHER STARTERS IN WEEK 17
The Spread and Total
Cleveland Browns (+11, O/U 38.5) at Pittsburgh Steelers, courtesy of Bovada (Sunday, Dec 31, 1:00 PM ET).
The spread opened at 14.5 but has tightened since then.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-3 SU (7-8 ATS), 1st AFC North
Cleveland Browns: 0-15 SU (3-12 ATS), 4th AFC North
Dominique Alexander (knee), out; Roderick Johnson (knee), out; James Wright (unknown), out; Darius Jackson (knee), out; Tank Carder (knee), out; Howard Wilson (knee), out; Joe Thomas (triceps), out; Jamie Collins (knee), out; Emmanuel Ogbah (foot), out; Jamie Meder (ankle), out; Derrick Kindred (wrist), out; Duke Johnson (shoulder), probable; Isaiah Crowell (shoulder), probable
Keion Adams (shoulder), out; Ryan Shazier (back), out; James Conner (knee), out; Ramon Foster (concussion), questionable; Stephon Tuitt (back), questionable; Vance McDonald (ankle), questionable; Antonio Brown (calf), questionable; JuJu Smith-Schuster (hamstring), probable
Sep 10, 2017 (FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland): Pittsburgh 21, Cleveland 18
Jan 1, 2017 (Heinz Field, Pittsburgh): Pittsburgh 27, Cleveland 24
Nov 20, 2016 (FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland): Pittsburgh 24, Cleveland 9
Jan 3, 2016 (FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland): Pittsburgh 28, Cleveland 12
Nov 15, 2015 (Heinz Field, Pittsburgh): Pittsburgh 30, Cleveland 9
Oct 12, 2014 (FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland): Cleveland 31, Pittsburgh 10
Sep 7, 2014 (Heinz Field, Pittsburgh): Pittsburgh 30, Cleveland 27
Dec 29, 2013 (Heinz Field, Pittsburgh): Pittsburgh 20, Cleveland 7
Nov 24, 2013 (FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland): Pittsburgh 27, Cleveland 11
Significant Betting Trends
Both teams are having a bad time against the spread recently. Pittsburgh is 1-4 ATS in its last five games, while Cleveland is 1-7 in its last eight.
Cleveland has not won a game straight up this season, and might be the least successful franchise in NFL history. More on that later.
Both teams are tending towards the under this season, the total has gone under in 10 of Pittsburgh’s 15 games and nine of Cleveland’s.
The Browns. There’s some argument on when this franchise started, and despite the name stretching back to 1945, I tend to go with the 1999 season, when they were “reactivated” but went through the same expansion process as any new team. That was the beginning of the Cleveland Browns team we see on the field today, which is far and away the worst franchise in NFL history.
Thing is, everybody knows the Browns are bad, and bets accordingly. For a while, this occasionally created value; you could bet on the Browns against their hilarious spread and count on getting paid. Then everyone caught wind of that plan, which is how you get the consensus Worst Team in Football going 3-12 ATS.
So just how bad are the Browns? Can they really go 0-16? And how good are the Steelers?
The Browns are bad. They’re so bad that their defense, which is mid-pack, has drawn a lot of hype. They allow slightly more points than an average NFL team, and they are applauded for it. This might be because the offense is so bad, the defense looks genuinely promising in comparison. The offense is the worst in the league, with another sacrificial lamb at quarterback and only a long-suspended wide receiver for excitement. The best player on that side of the ball admits he is unfamiliar with playing football while sober.
The Steelers have generally been fantastic this year, the best version of themselves we’ve seen in a while. In terms of efficiency, they’re third overall, with a surprisingly aggressive offense (hey look, the guy with Ben Roethlisberger won your fantasy league) and a surprisingly stout defense (at least pre-Ryan Shazier injury). This is a team with playoff ambitions, talented youngsters and an aging quarterback: a recipe for a must-win attitude. It could be a long time before the Steelers are this good again.
This is therefore a matchup between one of the best teams in the league and one of the worst teams in history, a team fighting for home-field throughout the playoffs and a team fighting to avoid the indignity of an 0-16 record. With the Patriots/Jets kicking off at the same time, the Steelers can’t afford to rest their starters, just in case the Jets pull off the improbable. Avoiding playing the AFC championship game in Foxborough, again, is paramount.
This is the smallest total we’ve seen in these previews; 38.5 is a tiny number, but not entirely without merit. Pittsburgh won’t have to score many points to feel comfortable, particularly with the worst offense in football on the other sideline.
Lesser teams than the Steelers have covered bigger spreads than this against Cleveland. Better teams than the Browns have fallen shorter against the Steelers. The Browns are so bad, particularly on offense, so bad they keep failing to cover their big spreads. If you’re a contrarian, take comfort in the fact that this spread is tightening, indicating a lot of action on Cleveland.
Pick: Pittsburgh (+11) and OVER (38.5)