Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, December 9, 2017 at 7:00 AM
The game everyone’s waiting for in the AFC is the New England Patriots visiting the Pittsburgh Steelers a week from Sunday. Those are the top two teams in the conference. They’re going to be the bye teams in the playoffs barring big surprises. It’s hard to take any other AFC team seriously as a Super Bowl threat given the clearance Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger’s teams have over the field.
Before we get to THAT game, both the Patriots and Steelers have national TV tests this week against divisional rivals.
SUNDAY NIGHT: Pittsburgh hosts Baltimore
MONDAY NIGHT: New England visits Miami
Both AFC powers could get caught looking ahead. Plus, Pittsburgh is coming off a brutal Monday Night battle in Cincinnati where a key player suffered a life-changing injury. Baltimore would be a playoff team if the season ended today…and the Ravens always bring peak intensity to their games at this site. New England has it easier because the opponent is so bad. But, this is a second straight road game for the Dolphins (in the middle of three straight), and they just beat this foe badly recently in Foxboro.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see one upset this week in a prime-time TV game. It’s not out of the question that we could have TWO because the Patriots can be caught napping when they get overconfident.
We’re not going to post any official selections here in JIM HURLEY’S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK because that isn’t fair to paying customers. And, as we write this, there’s still plenty of time for new personnel or market developments to influence the final decision-making process. But, because this AFC duo is dominating the headlines so much right now, we thought this would be a good time to map out championship potential for both.
The Patriots are even money to win the AFC at most spots (bet $100 to win $100 that they go to the Super Bowl). And, that’s even though they might not have home field advantage in the AFC brackets if they can’t win in Pittsburgh next week. New England is 5/2 or 11/4 to win the Lombardi Trophy at many offshore and Nevada sites (+250 to +275) on the moneyline.
Unfortunately, New England’s schedule has been so easy that it’s hard to know for sure if they’re really THAT big a favorite to go the distance over the rest of the field. Maybe the AFC is about a field goal worse than the NFC in Power Ratings…and that won’t be obvious until the Super Bowl. New England did win a home game over Atlanta recently. That was in the fog…and Atlanta might not make the playoffs anyway. New England is a lot better than the other three teams in the AFC East…and a lot better right now than the contenders in the fading AFC West who they were drawn to face in this year’s schedule rotation. Coasting against an easy schedule doesn’t mean you’re a league champion.
The Steelers are 9/4 or 5/2 to win the AFC at most sports books, which is +225 to +250. That at least suggests that the market doesn’t think Pittsburgh can beat New England twice even if they host both games. Or, it’s an assessment that New England is more likely to earn home field in the playoffs over this last month of action, regardless of what happens next Sunday. Pittsburgh is 5/1 or 6/1 to win the Super Bowl (+500 or +600 obviously), which suggests the Steelers would be a dog in the Super Bowl against the most likely opponents (and, Minnesota would have home field if those two were to meet).
Right now, we’re probably looking at a line very close to pick-em when New England visits Pittsburgh next week. Maybe the Steelers will be a slight favorite. Maybe Pittsburgh shows so much attrition through these difficult divisional wars that the Patriots will be a slight road favorite.
To JIM HURLEY, it’s all going to come down to health. New England’s easier schedule will have them positioned to thrive in January, particularly if they host both AFC playoff challenges. Pittsburgh was banged up plenty Monday Night, and Baltimore’s waiting to take its shots. Our computer models are showing the Patriots are actually a bargain at even money to win the AFC right now. That price will become much more cumbersome if Pittsburgh doesn’t win its next two games.
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Back Monday to either recap key developments from Week 14 of the NFL, or to offer up early tips for the bowls (that get started in earnest a week from Saturday). In the meantime, GO GET THE MONEY all weekend in football and basketball with PROVEN WINNER JIM HURLEY!