When the Pittsburgh Steelers are at their best, linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu are making game-changing plays for a punishing defense. But that has not happened often enough this season, and it’s something that needs to change if the Steelers are going to make a strong push for the playoffs.
Still clinging to hopes of winning the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys need quarterback Tony Romo to be at his best down the stretch.
Romo and the Cowboys, who have won four of their past five games, are 1½-point home underdogs to the Steelers today in a meeting of 7-6 teams.
“One thing has not changed since the Cowboys started playing in their big palace of a stadium – they have big problems winning there,” Systemplays.com handicapper Doug Fitz said. “It doesn’t look promising this week, either, as they face a Steelers team that was just embarrassed.”
Pittsburgh, upset 34-24 at home by San Diego last week, ranks No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and pass defense despite dealing with key injuries all season. Harrison, Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be playing together for the first time since Oct. 7, and their reunion comes at a bad time for Romo.
The good news for Romo, who has 20 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions, is his big-play wide receiver, Dez Bryant, plans to play with a fractured index finger.
“As inconsistent as Bryant has been, he’s really the Cowboys’ only true downfield threat,” said Fitz (@fitz_doug on Twitter). “Dallas lacks much of a running attack, and the Steelers are strong defending the pass.”
Dallas does not defend its home field, however. The Cowboys are 5-17 against the spread at home the past three seasons, including 0-6 this season, and that’s a major reason Fitz is siding with the Steelers.
Fitz scouts the rest of today’s Week 15 schedule:
■ Green Bay (-3) at Chicago: Despite losing four of their past five games, the Bears (8-5) statistically are better than the Packers in almost every category. Chicago is trying to overcome injuries to several key players, but quarterback Jay Cutler is probable to play through knee and neck issues. With money moving the line toward Green Bay, I’ll recommend the Bears as home ‘dogs in an important division game.
■ New York Giants at Atlanta (-1½): Eli Manning and the Giants normally play better on the road, where they are 3-2-1 ATS this season. The Falcons have a pass-oriented offense, and Matt Ryan will be facing one of the league’s best defensive fronts. Manning has been spectacular over the past three games with eight touchdown passes and two interceptions. I’ll side with the Giants.
■ Tampa Bay at New Orleans (-3½): Each team is riding a three-game losing streak. The Saints are last in the NFL in defense, while Tampa Bay ranks a respectable 13th in offense and has a plus-12 turnover ratio compared with New Orleans’ minus-4 ratio. Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin has emerged as one of the league’s top running backs. Take the points with Tampa Bay.
■ Minnesota at St. Louis (-3): Although vastly improved because of first-year coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams still rate as mediocre, and I can’t trust them in the favorite’s role. The Vikings have a shot at a wild-card spot, and no defense has stopped Adrian Peterson, who leads the league with 1,600 yards rushing, including 643 in the past four games.
■ Washington (-1½) at Cleveland: Both teams are improved defensively, but the Redskins’ fifth-ranked offense should be too much for the Browns to overcome. It’s unknown if rookie quarterback Robert Griffin lll will play for Washington with a right knee injury, but backup Kirk Cousins was impressive in leading the Redskins to an overtime win last week. Griffin or not, go with Washington.
■ Jacksonville at Miami (-7½): This line is too high for the Dolphins, who are averaging only 18.5 points per game. The Jaguars are just as bad as their 2-11 record, but they have been competitive on the road, where they are 4-1-1 ATS with covers at Houston and Green Bay.
■ Denver (-3) at Baltimore: The once-feared Ravens defense ranks 24th overall, but Terrell Suggs might return and provide a boost for this game. The public is riding Peyton Manning and the hot Broncos, driving this number up, but playoff-bound Baltimore looks too good to pass up as a home ‘dog.
■ Indianapolis at Houston (-9½): Elite teams typically bounce back after an embarrassing loss, especially when playing at home. The Texans were dominated in every aspect of the game at New England. I don’t usually lay this many points in any NFL game, but Houston will refocus and take no prisoners to cool off Andrew Luck and the Colts, who are 3-3 on the road.
■ Carolina at San Diego (-3): The Chargers are off a stunningly dominant win at Pittsburgh. The Panthers handed the Falcons their second loss. How will these losing teams respond to success? Carolina is out of the playoffs, and San Diego has only the slimmest of postseason hopes. I’ll give a slight lean to the Panthers because of quarterback Cam Newton’s recent resurgence.
■ Seattle (-5½) at Buffalo: The Seahawks are 2-5 on the road, but they did pick up an impressive win at Chicago two weeks ago. Seattle is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence behind rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, while the Bills (5-8) are headed in the opposite direction. Laying less than a touchdown in this neutral-site game at Toronto seems safe enough to play the Seahawks.
■ Detroit (-6½) at Arizona: The Cardinals have lost nine in a row, including 58-0 at Seattle a week ago, but at least they covered two of those games. The Lions have lost five straight and are 0-4-1 ATS. Only because Arizona is a significant home ‘dog against another awful team, and Ken Whisenhunt is coaching with his job on the line, I’ll lean to taking the points.
■ Kansas City at Oakland (-3): I find it hard to believe that money is showing up on the Raiders. Take advantage of this misguided move. The Chiefs have won eight of their past nine games in Oakland, and that’s an undeniable trend.
■ San Francisco at New England (-5): The only way to beat the Patriots is to pressure Tom Brady, who has 29 touchdown passes and four interceptions. If any defense is capable of doing that, it would be the 49ers. Aldon Smith has 19½ sacks, three shy of Michael Strahan’s season record, to lead San Francisco’s fast and physical defense. I don’t believe New England will come close to the cake walk it enjoyed Monday against the Texans.
COMPILED BY MATT YOUMANS
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL