Divisional Playoffs NFL Picks: Grab The Points In Steelers vs. Broncos

Sterling Xie

Saturday, January 16, 2016 10:10 PM GMT

Despite some potentially crippling injuries, the Steelers should still be able to stay close on the road against the top-seeded Broncos and upset the NFL odds.

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NFL Pick: Steelers +9
Best Line Offered: at Bovada

 

Down a pair of explosive weapons in Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams, the Pittsburgh Steelers don't look like particularly strong threats to win a second consecutive road playoff game.  Bookmakers initially installed the Denver Broncos as five-point home favorites, but with Brown and Williams being declared out (not to mention Ben Roethlisberger's lingering shoulder soreness), the line has since risen to 7.5.

While it's logical to assume Denver will move on to host the AFC Championship game, it's a leap to conclude the Broncos will win by two possessions.  The meager over-under total of 38.5 suggests a 24.5-16 score prediction from the bookmakers, which seems logical on the surface.  The average score of a Broncos game this year was a 22.2-18.5 win. 

At the same time, Denver has had just three wins by more than seven points this season, with only one of those coming since Week 8, when its defense suffocated the San Diego Chargers in a 17-3 win back in Week 13.  Moreover, the Broncos have been rather average ATS recently when favored.  After beginning 3-1 ATS as a favorite, Denver has since gone 2-5-1.  The largest line the Broncos have covered all season came way back in Week 1, when they beat the Ravens 19-13 to cover the 4.5-point spread on the NFL odds board.

Losing arguably the league's best receiver in Brown will hurt the Steelers offense severely, but it's still easy to imagine Pittsburgh's offense remaining potent enough to keep this game close.  The Steelers averaged a healthy 5.8 yards per attempt without Williams last week against a strong Bengals run defense, the third-highest single game total Cincinnati gave up all season.  By Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, Cincinnati ranked eighth against the run during the regular season, suggesting the relatively anonymous of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman should still be effective enough to keep the Steelers offense multidimensional.

More importantly, bettors cannot be sure the Broncos offense is capable enough to lay the points here, even with Peyton Manning back under center.  Though Manning led a second-half comeback in his Week 17 return to the lineup, his totals were relatively modest: 5-of-9 for 69 yards against a porous pass defense (22nd in DVOA) which was missing top cornerback Jason Verrett.  While Manning undeniably played well, it's equally undeniable that the bigger factor in Denver's win was the rushing tandem of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, who combined for 212 yards on 30 attempts (7.1 yards per carry).

And therein lies the problem with laying the points in this game: Denver's offense is a ground-bound unit which will likely seek to limit the number of possessions in this game, thereby reducing the potential of a convincing win to cover the spread for the Broncos.  That could be problematic against the Steelers, who quietly have one of the better run-stuffing front sevens in the league. Pittsburgh ranked fifth in run defense DVOA during the regular season and limited Denver to a relatively tame 4.2 yards per attempt during their first meeting in Week 15.  When Manning reentered the Chargers game, the Broncos continued to run Gary Kubiak's preferred outside zone stretch running game which paid dividends with Brock Osweiler in the lineup.  But that type of system places untenable stress on the immobile Manning, and it's possible Denver adopts more of the shotgun and pistol base formations it utilized at the start of the year with Manning.  Before Manning was sidelined, the Broncos eclipsed 5.0 yards per carry just once in nine games and averaged 3.8 YPC overall.  When Osweiler started and enabled Kubiak to reintroduce is core running principles, Denver had over 5.0 YPC three times and averaged 4.6 YPC overall.

Whether the Broncos opt for a conservative run-based approach or place a greater burden on Manning, Denver's offensive upside seems limited.  Pittsburgh was actually the superior regular-season team—the Steelers had a better point differential (+104 to +59) and thus had a win expectancy greater than that of the AFC's top seed (10.6 to 9.7).  The Broncos were an extremely fortunate 9-3 in one-score games this year, good for the third-best winning percentage in the league.  Denver may have the horses to pull out another close contest at home, but even with Pittsburgh's debilitating offensive injuries, don't expect the Broncos to roll on Sunday and take the Steelers to cover with your NFL picks.