Why Steelers are the NFL's Meme Team

Pittsburg Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburg Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Wild Card - The Pittsburgh Steelers are the team to fear in the playoffs.

They are playing with house money. They aren't supposed to be here. No one believes in them. They want Ben Roethlisberger to go out a winner. They're gritty, hard-nosed overachievers who play an old-school brand of slobberknocker…

Alright, alright, I'll stop.

The Steelers are a Meme Team: a self-parody with easy-to-exaggerate strengths and weaknesses and a storyline form-fit to both familiar franchise Steel Curtain tropes and playoff mythmaking genres. If they beat the Chiefs on Sunday night, brace yourself for comparisons to every Super Bowl winner with an ancient quarterback from the 2015 Broncos all the way back to the 1970 Baltimore Colts. They're not the team to fear, unless you fear talking yourself into a bad decision based on intangibles.

But let's look past the meme for a moment. What are the Steelers really good at? And do they have a shot on Sunday?

It's obvious what they are best at: generating sacks. The Steelers rank second in adjusted sack rate. T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward are magnificent. Oddly enough, the Steelers' pressure rate (26.3%, seventh in the NFL) and hurry rate (11.1%, 12th) at Pro Football Reference aren't all that superlative. But Watt gets home, and 55 sacks can be a heck of an equalizer, especially against second-tier and/or injury-plagued competition.

The Steelers also rank fifth at stopping opponent's No. 1 receivers and eighth against No. 2 receivers. Ahkello Witherspoon and (when healthy) Joe Haden have played well, and of course the pass rush has made their lives easier. The Steelers also caught the Titans without A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, the Browns in full Baker Mayfield Meltdown mode, and the Ravens in the rain with Tyler Huntley to finish the season. The Steelers secondary did not look nearly as impressive against the Bengals, Chargers, or Chiefs, which does not bode well for their playoff fortunes.

After the pass rush and the cornerback metrics comes the deluge. The Steelers run defense is so feeble that it may be distorting their data about stopping No. 1 and No. 2 receivers: the Vikings, for example, didn't need to throw downfield very often to score 36 points in Week 14. As for the offense, it takes some serious data-mining to find any real positives.

The Steelers rank 13th in both red zone and goal-to-go offensive DVOA. That's not the most impressive split in playoff history, but it's a start. The Steelers have scored touchdowns in 75% of their goal-to-go opportunities. Roethlisberger has thrown 17 red zone touchdowns to go with five non-red zone touchdowns. He has not thrown a red zone interception and has taken just four red zone sacks for a loss of 23 total yards. Big Ben's stats inside the 20 suggest he's still providing some game-management value in a high-leverage situation where raw arm strength is not all that important.

The Steelers also rank a respectable 13th in third-down passing, which is remarkable because they rank 32nd, with a horrendous -25.2% DVOA, in first-down passing. The Steelers are worse than the Giants and Panthers when passing on first down but climb into the moderately respectable range of teams like the Bengals and, um, the Saints on third downs.

Roethlisberger led all quarterbacks with 193 dropbacks and 181 attempts on third downs this season, per Sports Info Solutions, the data source for the rest of this paragraph. He finished 25th in yards per attempt (6.4) but sixth in completion rate (64.6%) and sixth in sack rate (2.2%), with just four interceptions. One of the indelible images of the 2021 season is of Roethlisberger flinging passes into the flat to convert on fourth-and-medium, but that's the meme, not the full story. Roethlisberger was at least doing some wily-savvy stuff when the Steelers needed a conversion. His habit of waddling forward in the pocket and ejecting wobblers to nowhere on some third downs earned some melancholy chuckles (the dude used to be thrilling to watch), but the celebrated Joe Burrow took many more third-down sacks (20) on fewer attempts (160). Avoiding catastrophic plays counts for something, especially when trying to manufacture wins with sacks on defense.

It's nearly impossible to stack the Steelers' relative strengths high enough to build an argument for an upset. To push them past the Chiefs, we must resort to either:

  • Old Coughlin Giants-versus-Brady Patriots reasoning (pass rush FTW);
  • The Chiefs Will Beat Themselves argument (which is a notch above pure contrarianism); or
  • Cliches.

The cliches may have a touch of merit—sacks can truly be an X-factor and the Chiefs do self-destruct now and then (so do the Cowboys, Bengals, Bills, and even the Buccaneers whenever they see a fleur-de-lis). But overall, the Steelers offense is only a little more capable than the memes suggest, their defense is considerably weaker than its reputation, and that Chiefs -12.5 line feels just about right.

Leaderboard of the Week: Defensive Pass Interference Penalty Yardage Gained

If the only Las Vegas Raiders games you watched live this year were their Thanksgiving victory over the Cowboys and the Week 18 Fit To Be Tied season finale against the Chargers, you might think that the Raiders can only beat a quality opponent if they draw gobs and gobs of yardage on defensive pass interference penalties.

Those probably are the only Raiders games you watched live, at least in the second half of the season. And you would not be totally wrong.

Here are the top five teams in drawing pass interference yardage this season:

Team DPI Yards Declined
LV 13 324 0
IND 13 284 5
NYJ 10 221 1
CHI 10 220 0
PIT 12 177 5

(All penalty data comes from the incomparable NFLPenalties.com.)

The declined penalties are interesting because DPI is often called on completed passes, which therefore are more likely to be accurate throws, not chuck 'n' luck efforts to bait the ref. None of Derek Carr's 13 passes which drew DPI were completed. His DPIs against the Chargers were of a type that most fans hate: the underthrown or otherwise off-target heave-ho. His Cowboys DPIs were of another type that most fans hate: isolate a defender one-on-one, throw in that general direction, hope the officials feel like over-officiating.

Of course, fans hate nearly every DPI call except "receiver tackled two seconds before ball arrives." But too many fouls across the league this season looked like video game exploits, which is why the NFL needs to open up the definition of the foul and take another look under the hood.

The Raiders averaged 24.9 yards per DPI drawn, which just reinforced the impression that Carr was just tossing Powerball tickets downfield and hoping to get lucky. The league average is high, as you might expect: 16.1 yards per foul. The Raiders' average was almost 50% higher. The Raiders' DPI rates don't meet the formal definition of an outlier, but they clearly had a larger impact on individual game results than can be reasonably expected from even the sport's most game-changing penalty.

Moving down the board, good ol' Carson Wentz likes to hurl lotto balls down the field as much as Carr does. But to Wentz's credit, his receivers caught a few of them. Our savvy pal Big Ben also cracks the leaderboard, with an assist from Mason Rudolph. If you've watched much Steelers football, you know how much of their deep passing game consists of catapult launches up the sideline in search of either a highlight-reel catch or a flag. The Jets and Bears offenses relied on similar tactics to generate big plays, but neither team had Mike Tomlin coaching, T.J. Watt on defense, or Roethlisberger's creaky sensei vibes.

If we sort by total DPI penalties instead of total yardage, the leaderboard looks significantly different:

Team DPI Yards Declined
NYG 15 125 1
GB 14 174 0
DAL 14 154 0
LV 13 324 0
IND 13 284 5
NE 13 141 1

The Giants somehow averaged just 8.3 yards per DPI drawn. Only the staggering combined genius of Joe Judge, Jason Garrett and Freddie Kitchens made such wonders possible. The Patriots averaged just 10.8 yards per DPI, but they weren't ostensibly trying to run a vertical offense this year. (The Giants failed to run such an offense, of course: they averaged just 9.8 yards per completion, 29th in the NFL, with the Steelers dead last.)

If you are curious—I know I was—Patriots opponents were flagged eight times at home and five times on the road: a home-field advantage roughly on par with the league average, where home teams drew 163 DPI this year and road teams 137. The Patriots defense was flagged for nine DPIs, right around the league average. No Foxborough home cookin' in this category, at least this season.

The most interesting home-road split belonged to the Packers, who benefited from just four DPI in Lambeau but 10 on the road. This is almost certainly an officiating crew split or a quality-of-opponent split, not an "Aaron Rodgers scowls too much at home" split, though it's entertaining to pretend otherwise.

A pair of playoff teams made the bottom of the DPI yardage beneficiary list:

Team DPI Yards Declined
NO 3 42 0
CAR 3 45 0
LAR 6 74 0
BUF 8 88 4
MIN 6 103 2

The Rams should have drawn lots of DPI fouls this season with Cooper Kupp and either Robert Woods or Odell Beckham constantly streaking downfield. Officiating crews may once again be playing their hand here—the Rams drew the flag-averse Bill Vinovich crew twice and the staid John Hussey, Ron Torbert, and Shawn Smith crews at other times. The Bills' low yardage total is at least explained by the four declined penalties, though they seem like another team that should have snagged about 200 DPI yards on Josh Allen moon launches.

But back to the Raiders. They did not reach the playoffs solely on DPI yards. They reached the playoffs because the Browns fielded a scout team against them, because the Broncos always settle for moral victories the moment Drew Lock enters the huddle, and because Carson is a Wentz, and also because of DPI yards. The Steelers may be the weaker playoff team according to DVOA, but it's possible to picture them sacking their way to a messy upset. The Raiders' heave-and-hope tactics are only sustainable if the referees play along.

The refs are unlikely to play along. Jerome Boger's crew will work the Raiders-Bengals game. They have called a middle-of-the-pack 18 total DPI penalties for 270 yards. Had Shawn Hochuli's Rock 'n' Roll Circus or Carl Cheffers gotten the assignment, sharp money would be on a Raiders cover/upset, while the Bengals could win by four touchdowns with Vinovich's flag in his pocket. Boger's crew has its moments of delirium, but they won't give the Raiders a DPI advantage. Which means that the Raiders will be at a severe disadvantage.

Walkthrough Sportsbook

A quick programming note before we talk props and such: I won't be writing end-of-week previews during the playoffs, because they might clash and compete with Football Outsiders' official picks and previews. Instead, look for Walkthrough's preview-like material on Mondays.

I will, however, be rolling across the DraftKings board every Thursday looking for interesting wagers.

An Early Bird Special
The Raiders rank 23rd in first-quarter offensive DVOA because it takes time for the DPI machine to warm up. But the Bengals rank 29th, because it also takes a while for Joe Burrow to tune Zac Taylor out of his headset and start calling audibles. So Walkthrough is taking the first-quarter Under of 9.5 at +100. If we're lucky, we'll be ahead before we order that second Saturday late-afternoon beer!

Ice Station Under
The weather forecast for Buffalo on Saturday called for a HIGH of 10 degrees, as of Wednesday afternoon. The temperature will almost certainly be in the single digits around kickoff.

Also: Bills home games are just 3-6 at clearing the Over, while the Patriots and their opponents are just 3-5 at clearing the over on the road. So Walkthrough recommends the Under of 44.5. But of course we just lurve same-game parlays and making things harder on ourselves, so we are taking the Patriots moneyline and Under at a yummy +400. Let's go, Mac-Jones-only-throws-three-passes-and-Bills-never-adjust-their-game-plans victory!

Highest-Scoring Team of Wild-Card Weekend
The Chiefs are favorites at +350. But we like the Buccaneers at +400: their top-ranked offensive DVOA is facing the Eagles' 25th-ranked defensive DVOA. The Bucs' absences at the skill positions make this a risky play, but that's balanced here in greater Philly by the consolation value if the Eagles get whupped.

Superdog Sunday
Walkthrough is traditionally a Wild-Card Weekend chalk monster: we favor almost exclusively favorites every year, give or take the occasional Patriots parlay. But there was little meat on the bone of a three-favorite moneyline parlay on Sunday: Buccaneers-Cowboys-Chiefs to all win came in at an unappetizing +135. So instead, we teased the daylights out of the dogs: Eagles, 49ers, and Steelers, all at +14.5, came in at +200. So we cash in on any Sunday upsets and/or a trio of competitive non-blowouts.

A D-gen bet? Perhaps. But most of Walkthrough's weekend action will probably come in the form of in-game wagers. Follow me on Twitter @MikeTanier if you want to watch me crow about victories or blame others for my failures. Otherwise, see you Monday morning!


44 comments, Last at 18 Jan 2022, 5:59am

#1 by ahzroc // Jan 13, 2022 - 10:28am

You're not imagining it...Saints statistically get the fewest calls 

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#20 by BobbyDazzler // Jan 13, 2022 - 2:31pm

You're right and this has been happening for years, but outside of us Saints fans no-one knows or gives a damn

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#41 by t.d. // Jan 14, 2022 - 12:36pm

yup, ever since the city tried to sue the refs after the blown PI in the NFC championship, they've been among the most-penalized, and their opponents have been among the least penalized, teams (I think Chase Stuart wrote an article about this last year).  Also, feels like the PI magic (if it ever existed) left Foxboro with Brady (I think, if they give some guys the benefit of the doubt and not others, it's a qb-specific thing, like when Hochuli told Cam he wasn't "old enough" to get that roughing call a few years ago)

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#26 by slacksterest // Jan 13, 2022 - 5:22pm

One of the key parts about getting DPI called is that a pass has to be attempted. Given that the Saints were 30th in pass attempts this season they were not going to get many calls. Add in you don’t get many DPI call on screens and check downs and the lack of Saints DPI calls is less surprising. This Saints fan is hoping we sneak Watson back next year and let him go deep a bit more (but not enough to return to pick master form).

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#27 by slacksterest // Jan 13, 2022 - 5:22pm

One of the key parts about getting DPI called is that a pass has to be attempted. Given that the Saints were 30th in pass attempts this season they were not going to get many calls. Add in you don’t get many DPI call on screens and check downs and the lack of Saints DPI calls is less surprising. This Saints fan is hoping we sneak Watson back next year and let him go deep a bit more (but not enough to return to pick master form).

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#2 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 13, 2022 - 10:54am

TBH, the only reason the Steelers are in the playoffs is because of the horrible taunting/low block calls in the Bears game.

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#3 by JMM // Jan 13, 2022 - 10:56am

Steelers can win this weekend, although it is an uphill battle. In the first KC-Pitt game, there were 5 fumbles. KC recovering all 5 plus a BBR interception led to a turnover differential of +3 for KC. Make the turnover differential even and Pitt beats the spread. Flip it and they have a real chance. Does fumble luck average out over the long haul? and what is the long haul?

Since the first game, the O-line coach has resigned to go back to college (coaching). The Pitt running game has been more solid since. Some high Watt-age defense and/or Minkah magic can make a case for a Pitt win.

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#4 by mehllageman56 // Jan 13, 2022 - 11:12am

I love Days of Our Steelers as much as the next person, but please Football Gods Do Not Let This Happen.  Otherwise the Yinzer Apocalypse is Upon Us.

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#42 by Kaepernicus // Jan 14, 2022 - 2:22pm

Fumble luck absolutely balances out over time but varies wildly game to game. One of the big reasons the 49ers started 3-5 and finished 7-2 was a big fumble luck mean reversion. At some point there were like 15 fumbles in 49ers games and they recovered 2 I believe. It is why TO margin driven strength can really flop hard in the playoffs. The Dallas defense is a mid-tier unit with less TOs. Since I am a huge 49ers homer the best example I remember was 2011 when they lost to the Giants. SF had the best TO differential in the league and lost it in that game against the Giants leading to a loss. That team had a great defense even considering the TO margin, especially their rushing defense, so the game still went to OT. I think there is a chance the Cowboys lose by more than one score if they even tie on the TO margin. The 49ers are +1 on net yards per play vs. the Cowboys at +0.5. Also one of the biggest problems the 49ers have had this year was penalty yards against. The Cowboys had the same issue. This really seems like a bad match up for Dallas. I can also see a scenario where Jimmy throws 3 picks and Dallas wins by 10+. This SF team looks a lot like those 2000's San Diego teams and Dallas reminds me a lot of the same era Colts teams. SF is 8-3 outside the Division with only one bad loss to the Colts in a monsoon where Jimmy played horribly. 

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#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 13, 2022 - 11:24am

Do the NFL rules allow the Eagles to wear the Saints uniforms?

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#14 by Alex@ // Jan 13, 2022 - 1:07pm

I love this idea. If it's not allowed, maybe change the logo on the helmet to be a fleur de lis in an eagle's talons?

Temporarily change the team name to the Eaglesaints?

Hold a quick Mardi Gras in downtown Philly the night before?

Hire Gardner-Johnson (think that's him, the Saints db that always causes people to lose their minds) to forward trash-talk into the defense's headsets?

Is it too late to re-route the Delaware river behind a giant levee and dig the city down to below sea level?

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#6 by sharky19 // Jan 13, 2022 - 11:24am

Raiders first team to generate 35 points strictly off of DPI last week! Am I doing this right?


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#7 by sharky19 // Jan 13, 2022 - 11:27am

In all seriousness, reducing an entire season to 13 plays (with a marginal difference between other teams much lower because you know, every team gets DPI called for and against them) is so reductive. I’d rather you say you just don’t watch their games. This isn’t the Matt Moore Dolphins team here!

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#35 by eggwasp // Jan 14, 2022 - 7:46am

Absolutely - we only got 3 more DPI penalties than were called against us - and whilst for less yards, they are ALWAYS called against us on dodgy 3rd downs just when the D really needs a stop, and have been for years. Given that Carr threw more 20+ yard passes than anyone else this year, of course our DPIs are going to be longer. But that doesn't fit Mike's Carr-dink&dunk meme he's been living off for years.  Yes the Chargers one in the end zone was particularly bad (though it was defensive holding, so still a first down),  but we've been on the wrong side of terrible calls for so long (tuck rule, index card... etc), I'll take it this year. 

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#43 by LionInAZ // Jan 14, 2022 - 11:43pm

Are you kidding? The only reasons the Raiders are in is because of that idiotic DPI call in the 2nd quarter last week against the Chargers. 

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#44 by eggwasp // Jan 18, 2022 - 5:59am

1) How many Raiders games have you watched all the way through?  You see the jersey tug on Jones at the end of the WAS game? 

2) DPI was silly, but it was holding, and so a 1st down. Might have scored the very next down. 

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#8 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 13, 2022 - 11:36am

A gently used Daniel Jones if this is the true end of Ben?

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#10 by JMM // Jan 13, 2022 - 11:56am

Irrational exuberance in support of a sports team is never a bad thing. Especially when it has a clear and definitive end point in sight. Win away Steelers!


This should have been a reply to mehllageman56. Please move it in your minds eye.

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#12 by mehllageman56 // Jan 13, 2022 - 12:04pm

I wasn't very serious in my original comment, but irrational exuberance is folly when it concerns the NY Jets.

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#9 by mrh // Jan 13, 2022 - 11:51am

The refs are unlikely to play along. Jerome Boger's crew will work the Raiders-Bengals game. They have called a middle-of-the-pack 18 total DPI penalties for 270 yards.

 How much does the fact that this is not Boger's complete crew working the game affect this analysis?  Are penalties sticky with the referee himself or with the individual officials throwing the flags?

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#11 by mehllageman56 // Jan 13, 2022 - 12:02pm

Jerome Boger: "That's not a penalty.  He didn't tackle him to the ground."

Evil Assistant Ref: "Of course it is, he touched him with his pinky finger."

Jerome Boger: "You bet on the Raiders, didn't you?"

Evil Assistant Ref: "  Of course I did,  Vegas rules.  You bet on the Bengals?  Really?"

Jerome Boger:  "Of course not.  I-"

Kevin Harlan as the Voice of God: "I'm throwing both games!"

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#13 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 13, 2022 - 1:04pm

How are LV and PIT perceived compared to other "bad" playoff teams of the past

2020: CHI, WAS

2017: BUF, TEN

2016: DET, HOU, MIA

2015: HOU, WAS

2014: CAR

2011: DEN

2010: SEA

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#16 by sharky19 // Jan 13, 2022 - 1:41pm

Both 2020 teams, BUF 2017, and CAR 2014 leap off the page as surefire worse. 

2010 SEA, 2016 HOU/MIA are probably worse too

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#21 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 13, 2022 - 2:55pm

2017 Buffalo was a great feel-good story but we definitely didn't belong in the playoffs. We got in because the tiebreaker rules worked ever-so-slightly differently for a 4 way tie (Tenn, LA, Buffalo, Baltimore) than it would have in a 3 way, had Baltimore beaten Cincy. LA sitting home after beating us in the Peterman Massacre was comedy gold.


Also notable, Blake Bortles picked up a million first downs with his feet in that game. Apparently McDermott found that exceptionally annoying to defend against, because we drafted Josh Allen four months later.

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#34 by GwillyGecko // Jan 14, 2022 - 3:17am

once the titans won the 5 seed, the three-way tiebreakers applied for the 6 seed between buff/la/bal, then la was out based on conference record, then Baltimore was out based on strength of victory


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#23 by muscle417 // Jan 13, 2022 - 3:05pm

The 2017 Bills were 22nd with -10.7% DVOA. The 2021 Steelers are 24th with -10.4% DVOA. Steelers could drop below that Bills team once postseason adjustments are completed.

The Raiders also have a worse point differential than 2017 Bills, and Steelers did as well before W18.

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#24 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 13, 2022 - 3:18pm

2017 TEN and BUF were very similar to LV and PIT: in both cases, those teams got in while being worse than the teams that missed (BAL/LAC in 2017, IND/LAC in 2021). Hilarious how LAC comes out on the losing end both times this happened.

Also, wow does DVOA hate 2016 HOU. Their stats definitely aren't good (negative point differential, yards per play etc) but I have a hard time seeing how a 9-7 division winner with low variance was that bad.

Points: 0

#36 by eggwasp // Jan 14, 2022 - 7:53am

All the Raiders point differential is the 2x KC games.  But they've also got the 2nd best strength-of-opponent-record amongst our wins - all of whom were playoff contenders.   The losses were 2xKC & CIN - perfectly reasonable losses. The losses to LAC/CHI were as the Gruden-furore was emerging, and the losses to WAS, NYG post-Ruggs when the team was shellshocked, never mind what it did to the offense. I think its extremely difficult to evaluate this Raiders team based on season-long stats.  No team has been through a season like the Raiders have had before - fired the person who ran the whole franchise after 5 games, had the key to the offense gone after 7 after killing someone?  Whatever happens on Saturday, given what the players have been through - the Raiders deserve to be there, finally. 


Points: 0

#38 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 14, 2022 - 8:13am

Oh LV is definitely better than point differential would indicate. Their estimated wins total is at 8.4 compared to only 6.8 pythagorean wins. Their offense is 8th in "late and close" situations and their defense is 5th!

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#15 by barf // Jan 13, 2022 - 1:08pm

The Steelers have no chance of winning on Saturday. 

The game is Sunday night. 

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#19 by barf // Jan 13, 2022 - 2:20pm

Well played. 

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#17 by horn // Jan 13, 2022 - 1:57pm

what were odds if PIT teased to 17.5?

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#22 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 13, 2022 - 2:57pm

The alternate spread for PIT +17.5 is -195 at Fanduel.

Unless you were pure Yinzer and wanted Pitt -17.5, which is so wild that it's off the board. Pit -13.5 is +1400.

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#25 by Scott P. // Jan 13, 2022 - 5:07pm

Steelers are Meme Joe Team?

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#28 by Will Allen // Jan 13, 2022 - 5:32pm

This ought to be good for a 500 comment irrational thread. 


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#29 by Tutenkharnage // Jan 13, 2022 - 6:57pm

Just here to remind people that the refs directly cost the Bills a win against the Bucs. Carry on!

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#32 by Romodini // Jan 13, 2022 - 9:21pm

That officiating crew would be Scott Novak's, who throws a ton of penalties, and has fun with it too.

The Bills probably won't enjoy Brad Allen's crew this week, who made this ruling with a straight face: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rBFxg7H0YY



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#33 by Tutenkharnage // Jan 13, 2022 - 9:33pm

But it’s more of a problem for Mac Jones. Josh is gonna truck three guys on his way in and go in standing up around one end or another :)

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#37 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 14, 2022 - 8:10am

That is true, but the Bills still wouldn't be the 1 seed in that scenario.

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#39 by Last of the Sk… // Jan 14, 2022 - 8:49am

How do you rate the Steelers chances if say… a backup defensive lineman were to hit him low and destroy Mahome’s knee on the first play from scrimmage? Asking for everyone outside of Pittsburgh and the NFL offices who have ever seen the Steelers play… 

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#40 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 14, 2022 - 10:53am

Considering Chad Henne was able to hold down the fort in the second half against a CLE team that was better than this PIT game, KC would likely still be able to win with him in the game.

Points: 0

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