2005 Season NFL Football Past Picks
February 05, 2006
This pick was released to clients on July 25, 2012 at 7:43PM ET.
Seattle at Pittsburgh
Sunday 02/05 06:20 PM Eastern
3 units on Pittsburgh -4 (-110) (risk 3 to return 5.73) RESULT: WIN
When the season began, many expected Seattle to represent the NFC in this game. They didn't disappoint, cruising to a 13-3 regular season record and disposing of Washington and Carolina in easy fashion to make it to the big dance. Under the radar most of the season, they are no longer so. There weren't many true believers in the Seahawks until the Conference Championship game. Bettors were all over the "darling" Carolina Panthers in that game after Carolina racked up 29 points against Chicago and seemed very much like the 2003 Panthers team of destiny. I mentioned in both my Divisional Playoffs newsletter and my Conference Championship newsletter that Seattle was, in fact, for real. Consider that they scored over 28 points per game and held opponents to 16 during the regular season. They've won 83% of their games this season including a perfect record at home. They rushed for over 150 yards per game via the legs of the league's MVP (who punched in 28 touchdowns). Matt Hasselbeck, the NFC's top rated passer, completed 65% of his passes during the regular season, second only to Peyton Manning. They won four games this year by 25+ points including a 42-0 shutout of last year's NFC Champion. And, last week they made a major statement by dominating Carolina 34-14. They were the only team this season with an answer for Steve Smith. They have a veteran coach who has already won the big one once and they've won 13 of their last 14 games. I'll say it again. Seattle is for real.
Pittsburgh has been an amazing story. Written off for dead after their week 13 loss to Cincinnati that dropped them to 7-5 in the ultra-competitive AFC, the Steelers have gone on a tear. They've since won seven straight games in convincing fashion, five of which were on the road. They are the first sixth seed to make it to the Super Bowl and they did it by running the table on the road against three of the top 5 teams in the NFL. Their defense has been amazing in the playoffs. They shut down two of the highest scoring offenses in the league. They held Cincinnati, a team that averaged 26.1 PPG, to 17 points and they held Indy (who averaged 27.4) to 18 points. They completely disrupted the best offense with the best quarterback in the league in that Colts game. Then, they went to Denver (one of the best offensive lines and running games in the NFL) and shut them down too. They are giving up an average of 17.3 PPG in the playoffs against teams that averaged 26.1. Ben Roethlisberger has been playing as well as or better than Hasselbeck and his surprisingly great play has been the difference for a team that has historically won by the run. Both Indianapolis and Denver were hammered by Big Ben early and often and they couldn't recover. Pittsburgh is mean and comes into this game with a ton of momentum.
Both of these teams are very well balanced (think New England over the past four years). They don't have a big weakness to attack. They can beat you running or throwing. And, they both make it very hard for opposing offenses to score. Seattle has Mike Holmgren, Lofa Tatupu and Shaun Alexander. Pittsburgh counters with Cowher, The Bus and Polamalu. So, in a game of two very strong, balanced teams with no glaring weaknesses, who will win? More importantly, who will cover the spread?
I have analyzed this game from every possible angle. Based on gut feel, it's a toss up. I mean in a game as important as this, the linesmakers usually get it about right. There is rarely line value in the Super Bowl. But, I never cap strictly on gut. After digging deep here, I like Pittsburgh. I like the Steelers based on the stats and the intangibles. At first, I was leaning towards Seattle but after looking "under the covers" a bit, I am now definitely on the Steelers here. Here's why...
Let's start with the numbers. Both teams possess very strong numbers. And, when I first ran my analysis and my personal Super Bowl systems against the season stats for both teams, Seattle seemed the choice. But hang on. Is Seattle really stronger than Pittsburgh? There was definitely something missing from the analysis. And for me, it was this: Pittsburgh's four game stretch when Big Ben was injured or seriously hobbled (weeks 9-12). Given how important he has been to the Steelers amazing playoff run, is it really right to look at Pittsburgh's stats when he was out? I think not. This guy is playing SO WELL that the Steelers are truly a different team with him in the lineup. It's not a small difference. It is humongous.
Just look at wins/losses. Overall in the regular season, Pittsburgh was 11-5. They ended up the sixth seed for this reason. Two of those five losses, however, came during that stretch when they lost to Baltimore and Indianapolis. Sure, they may have lost to Indy anyway but they certainly would have scored more than 13 points against Baltimore and very likely won that game. If we take these four games out of the equation, and reassess Pittsburgh's numbers, a different story is told. Their numbers were great with these four games included. But, when we remove them, they are mind blowing. Their points-per-game go up from 24.3 to 26.3. Their points-allowed drop from 15.8 to 14.9. Rushing yards per game skyrocket from 137 to 146 (putting them virtually even with Seattle's 152) and yards per carry goes up to 3.6 (equal with Seattle's vaunted attack). They allowed 84 yards per game on the ground and 4.1 yards per carry (as compared to Seattle's 4.7). Here's the biggy: Yards per pass goes from 8.2 to a ridiculous 9.0. That's crazy! That figure compares to 7.7 for Brady, 7.4 for Palmer and 8.1 for Manning (probably the game's top three QBs). It dwarfs Hasselbeck's 7.7 and right now Matt is getting more attention. Yes Virginia, passing DOES matter in the big game. Just ask Tom Brady, Joe Montana, etc. This "hidden" stat, to me, tells a big story of why Big Ben and the Steelers were so darn successful during the playoffs. He's simply money and once you take out the games in which he wasn't playing or playing seriously injured, it's obvious. To cap things off, this Pittsburgh defense is one of the better ones we have seen in a while. They shut down Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James. They shut down the vaunted Denver running attack. Yeah, they can cause problems for Hasselbeck and Alexander. Troy Palomalu is as good as they come - a real play maker and it wouldn't shock me to see him make one or two very big plays that decide this game.
So, from a statistically standpoint, in a game that looks evenly matched at first, I actually give Pitt the BIG edge once we look at the true strength of the Steelers with Big Ben playing at full strength. And, when you consider that Pittsburgh did all this against a MUCH tougher schedule, the difference really balloons. I think the Bengals, Colts and Broncos would agree with me when I say the Steelers are truly Awesome, Baby!
Let me come back to the strength of schedule for a moment. I stated above the Pittsburgh did what they did this year against tough opponents. Sagarin Power Ratings had them facing the 9th toughest schedule this season during the regular season. Then, in the playoffs they went on the road and disposed of the #1, #2 and #3 seeds. Wow. Let me repeat that. They beat #1, #2 and #3 in the stronger conference on the road. Seattle, meanwhile, faced Washington and a beat-up Carolina team in the playoffs. Both home games. During the regular season, Sagarin pegs the Seahawks as having the absolute easiest schedule in the league. That's right - ranked #32 out of 32 teams. Now, I am not saying that Seattle isn't for real. I started this newsletter by saying just the opposite. But, this is telling, in a game that appears to be so close on the surface, that there is another reason to believe that Pittsburgh is actually meaningfully better.
I use systems as part of my handicapping. I have five I use in the NFL playoffs. Once I ran my systems with these newly revised stats, four of them point towards a Steelers cover. The first system is a general Super Bowl system that is 30-5 (although 0-3 the last three years). That one doesn't give me a lot of confidence. The second system is one based on defense. It's pretty simplistic and looks at points-allowed with some other things mixed in. It's 17-11 overall. This one doesn't give me a ton of confidence either based on the record. But, the remaining two systems do. My third system focuses on defense. It looks at a myriad of stats to find the stronger defensive team (focused more on scoring defense than simply yards). This system is 24-3 since 2002 including 4-1 this playoff season and 2-0 in Super Bowls. My final system is power-rating based and looks at overall power as well as some key yardage stats (including that yards-per-pass stat mentioned above). This system is 16-0 since 2003 including 4-0 this season and 2-0 in Super Bowls. All four of these point to a Pittsburgh win and cover.
Finally, what about intangibles? While both teams obviously want this game, I believe Pittsburgh wants it more. It is more focused on winning this game. Why? Pittsburgh had their heart broken last year. They were 16-1 and headed towards greatness when they got smacked down at home in the Conference Championship by New England. As a result, they are hungrier and more focused than Seattle who is really getting their first crack at this. Secondly, while I am definitely sold on Seattle's overall strength, I'm more sold on their strength at home. While Pittsburgh beat Indianapolis, Denver, Cincinnati, San Diego and Chicago on the road this season, Seattle's two toughest road games were at Jacksonville and at Washington. The Seahawks lost both games outright. They were 5-3 on the road and have not won a big road game all season!
In the end, Pittsburgh is road-tested. They've beat the best teams in the NFL on the road in the playoffs, they have stronger numbers on both offense and defense when Big Ben has played. They are hungrier and more experienced. And, my playoffs systems tell me they will cover the spread. They will be as well-rested and healthy as the Seahawks given the extra week. My computer simulation predicts a close Pittsburgh win. I disagree. I think Pitt wins by more than 4 and covers this spread. Good luck with your bets.