2008 Season NFL Football Past Picks

February 01, 2009

This pick was released to clients on December 31, 1969 at 9:00PM ET.


Arizona at Pittsburgh

Sunday 02/01 06:20 PM Eastern

3 units on Arizona +7.5 (-110) (risk 3 to return 3)  RESULT: WIN

The big game is upon us. Pittsburgh's presence here is no surprise. Arizona was a massive long shot to make it, both at the beginning of the season, and even at the start of the playoffs. The crux of this pick is in the analysis of scoring which will come towards the end of the write-up. But first, let's look at the two teams playing in this game...

It's amazing how many changes take place during the course of an NFL season. Last year the Giants were sailing along at 6-2, and everything was right and rosy in the Big Apple. And then came a few losses and 4-4 run which led to calls for the jobs of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning.  A very competitive finish, a playoff sweep and a Super Bowl ring and suddenly the two safest jobs in the NFL belonged to Manning and Coughlin (now a genius). Are the Arizona Cardinals following the same path? They got off to a 7-3 start this year, including back-to-back wins over a then undefeated 4-0 Buffalo team and hated rival Dallas. After that, the Cardinals put together a 1-4 run (ouch). To cap off the season, they played good beating Seattle, much like the Giants of 2007. That win was followed up by a 3-0 record in the playoffs and Arizona now stands in a place that no one (including me) suspected four weeks ago. Their defense was the big concern. They had to beat a hot Atlanta team that closed the season 5-1 and on a roll. That win required shutting down Michael Turner and a Falcons running game that averaged 153 yards per game. Arizona held him shy of 50 yards. The 6-point loss was the largest losing margin by the Falcons in over two months! Arizona then had to go on the road and beat a Carolina team that finished 8-2, with the two losses coming to the Giants in OT on the road and at Atlanta. The NFC South saw home teams post a 27-5 mark on the season and Carolina was the best of that group, and the best at home as well, finishing 8-0, allowing just 12 ppg in their last six on home turf. Arizona goes in there and hangs 33 on them, winning as a double-digit dog. Sure, Delhomme had a bad day, but let's not forget about what the Cardinals offense did. They put up the most points, the most first downs, and the second most yards of any team that played in Carolina all season. And let's not forget that the 30 points the Cards scored on Atlanta was the most they allowed all season as well. The Cardinals then returned home to face an Eagles defense that was expected to once and for all silence this Cardinals offense. The Eagles had allowed 0 TD passes in 24 quarters, covering a six-game span including three games vs. playoff teams and two others vs. teams with winning records. The Eagles allowed a total of 11 ppg in these six games preceding the Cardinals game. The Cards proceeded to use the Warner-to-Fitzgerald combination to score on three TD passes in 27 minutes. The vaunted Eagles blitz was neutered by Warner's quick release. The Arizona defense has taken their lumps this season, and deservedly so. But, this defense is about as underrated as any at this point. Things have changed, yet many fail to recognize this. This was a bad team that ranked 29th through the first half of the season, and finished the season 18th. If this sounds familiar, see the 2006 World Champion Indianapolis Colts who went for absolutely horrible on defense during the regular season, to having the best defense in the playoffs and Super Bowl. The Cardinals held the Eagles to 169 yards on their first 40 plays or 4.2 ypp. Once an 18-point lead was built, they played softer and the Eagles moved the ball. Carolina was averaging 32 ppg in their last six at home and they managed just 13 vs. the Cards. Three top running backs in Turner, DeAngelo Williams and Brian Westbrook gained just 150 yards on 42 carries for 3.6 ypc against the Cards in the playoffs. The Arizona defense has recorded eight sacks in the playoffs, more than any other team. This defense is playing at a very high level at the right time.

Pittsburgh has had problems on offense all season long, and the biggest culprit has been the offensive line which allowed 49 sacks in the regular season and four more in last week's game vs. the Ravens. Ben Roethlisberger owns a dismal 80.1 passer rating, ranking him 24th out of 32 quarterbacks. But this game for Pittsburgh isn't about offense, is it. Like many seasons past, the Pittsburgh defense has been their calling card this year. This is truly a great defense. They have shown they can hold top offenses down. But, they faced very few quarterbacks this season that are as good as Kurt Warner. Warner is #3 in QB rating and the Steelers faced just two teams this year with a QB ranked in the top five: Peyton Manning at #5 and Phillip Rivers at #1. The two games versus Indianapolis and San Diego saw the Steelers yield 548 yards, 7.3 yards per pass, six TD passes, and only one interception. Warner is currently playing at a higher level than both Manning and Rivers, with a rating of 112.1 in the playoffs. Larry Fitzgerald has simply been unstoppable. All he has done in the last five weeks is catch 31 balls for 650 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 21 yards per reception. Pittsburgh allowed 13.9 ppg this season but remember, Arizona went to Carolina who was 8-0 at home, allowing 12 ppg in their last six, and popped them for the biggest total against them all season. Philadelphia was allowing 11 ppg in their last six, and nothing through the air, and Arizona had 21 points and three touchdowns before halftime. Both of those defenses were playing to numbers better than Pittsburgh.

As promised, let's do a little math to help us try to predict the score in this game. First, how much will Arizona score? The Arizona offense averaged 26.7 per game during the regular season and they have even improved on that in the playoffs at 31.7 per game. But, Pittsburgh has the #1 defense, allowing under 14 ppg. So they will shut down Arizona, right? Not so fast. Pittsburgh did hold down some good offenses this year (Chargers, Giants, Eagles, Pats) to under 17 ppg on average which is concerning for Arizona. But, the Arizona offense forced three teams on their schedule to give up season-highs in points allowed. They forced two others to give up their second highest and still two others allowed the 3rd most. Pittsburgh's three worst defensive outings this year produced 31, 24 and 21 opponent points. So, it's quite conceivable to see the Cards getting 21+ points in this game. Further reason to believe that? Arizona played three top 5 defenses this year (Eagles, Giants, Redskins) and averaged 24.5 ppg. How have top defenses like Pittsburgh's historically done in the Super Bowl? Let's have a look at the last seven Super Bowl teams that owned a defense ranked #1 through #4. That group includes one #4 defense, two #3 defenses, one #2 defense, and three #1 defenses. Those defenses, which all averaged under 14 ppg allowed during their regular seasons, gave up 14, 29, 10, 23, 34, 24 and 31 points in their Super Bowl game. That's an average of 21 points per game! So it seems that top defenses don't generally perform to their normal level in the Super Bowl. In fact, on average, they give up about 7 points more than their average. If that happens in this game, the Steelers will give up 21 points. So, when all is analyzed, it seems very reasonable to see Arizona scoring 21 to 24 points in this football game.

How about Pittsburgh - how much will they score? The Steelers averaged 21.7 per game during the regular season and in their two playoff games, 29 per game. Arizona's defense allowed a concerning 26.6 points per game during the regular season. That average was propped up by some horrible performances vs. the Jets (56), Giants (37), Eagles (48), and Pats (47). This right here is why many can't bring themselves to back the Cardinals in this game. They think that Arizona is going to give up 28 or 31 or more points in this game. I don't see that happening. Let's look at how has Arizona has done this year in meaningful games. Not that I condone it, but this team appears to have taken much of November and December off after clinching their division so early. During that span they simply didn't show up. Prior to that, the defense allowed a respectable 22.8 per game. And in the playoffs, they have held their three opponents to a similar 20.7 per game. So, it would seem that this team is certainly capable of keeping opponents to the low 20s. Layer on top of that the fact that they are facing an average-at-best offense here and it starts to get hard to see the Steelers putting up 4+ TDs on the Cards. When we look at how Arizona's defense is playing, it looks alot like these defenses that Pittsburgh faced this year: Jaguars, Bengals, Cowboys, Browns, Chargers. Against those opponents, the Steelers averaged 25 points per game. And how did Arizona's defense do this season vs. offenses similar to Pittsburgh's? Arizona played five games against four opponents with a similar points-per-game average to Pittsburgh's: the Cowboys, Dolphins, 49ers, Bills. In those five games, Arizona allowed 17.6 points per game on average. So, how much will Pittsburgh score in this game? While that's open for interpretation, these numbers make it very difficult to see the Steelers scoring more than 27. And in fact, the most likely outcome seems to be about 24.

Bottom line, if you believe that the Cards are going to score more than 17 points here, then it becomes very difficult to back the Steelers to win by more than a touchdown. And, as you saw, Arizona getting to 20+ seems like the most likely scenario. Based on this scoring analysis, a reasonable final score seems to be 24-20 or maybe 27-21 or 27-24 with Pittsburgh coming out on top, but not covering the spread.

Finally, the intangibles in this game primary go to Arizona. Pittsburgh has more experienced players, but how much does that really matter? Arizona is the hungrier team right now. They are playing with a chip on their shoulder, playing the "no respect" card perfectly. It's "us against the world" for them, while Pittsburgh is at risk of coming in a little overconfident. In addition, Ken Whisenhunt's stint in Pittsburgh is likely to serve his team well here. It's not because he knows the Steelers' play-calling tendencies (heck, Pittsburgh knows his, so that's a wash). The advantage comes in knowing the Steelers' players very well. He knows what Big Ben likes and doesn't like to do. He knows what schemes cause players fits. He knows things that, if used wisely, will help his team.

So, in summary, there are some reasons to like Pittsburgh here: they have more experienced players, and they own the best defense in the league - a defense that has had success even against top offenses. But, that's about it. The list for Arizona is much longer. The scoring analysis says Arizona will keep this within a touchdown. They have a coach that knows the opponents' players very well. They have the motivational edge. They also have a Super Bowl winning quarterback - a quarterback that no defense this year (including defenses playing as good as Pittsburgh's) has been able to stop. The Cards are facing a team with a quarterback rated in the lower third in the league, and an offensive line that gives up sacks as often as John Madden thinks about food during an NFL telecast (they are ranked 29th in the league in sacks allowed). And the Cards, like the Giants last year, have momentum - seemingly peaking at the right time. While not a slam dunk, the value here lies on the team that with the right bounces, can win outright, getting a full touchdown to boot. Given that this game could very well end 20-27 or 21-28, I am recommending you buy the half point to get 7.5 and thus have this game listed at its current cost of -130 at +7.5. However, if you can only get it at +7, I like it there too as Arizona has a good chance to cover with a puncher's chance at winning outright.

Lock in next year's NFL season package at the early-bird price now. Grab some peace of mind now here.

Steelers 3 14 3 7 27
Cardinals 0 7 0 16 23



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