Thursday Night Football Preview

December 7, 2023

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers

© Michael Longo/For USA Today Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

After one of the more exciting games of the “Thursday Night Football” schedule last week between the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, football fans and bettors are faced with one of the uglier matchups of the season as New England Patriots travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers.

Both of these teams are among the worst in the NFL on offense. Despite the struggles, the Mike Tomlin-led Steelers are 7-5 and have their sights set on the playoffs. The same cannot be said for Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots. At 2-10, the Patriots are the worst team in the NFL, currently riding a five-game losing streak with no signs of things changing.

This is going to be an ugly game. The total is set at a whopping 30 points, one of the lowest point totals for an NFL game in modern history.

The Steelers will start Mitch Trubisky under center after Kenny Pickett was knocked out of last week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. This will be the first start of the season for Trubisky, who has 273 passing yards and two touchdowns this year. Trubisky was the Steelers’ starter to open the 2022 season but was benched in favor of Pickett during the middle of the year.

It will either be Mac Jones or Bailey Zappe under center for the Patriots, although both quarterbacks will likely see playing time based on how things have played out as of late. Neither one of these guys are very good. Jones’s confidence appears to be shot, and whatever magic Zappe captured during spurts last season has vanished.

Whichever way you slice it, the Patriots’ quarterback play has been putrid. To make things more complicated, New England will be without running back Rhamondre Stevenson, along with wideout Demario Douglas and offensive lineman Riley Reiff.

This game is ugly on paper but is still meaningful to some, so let’s take a look at this matchup from a betting perspective.

Pittsburgh -6.0 (-110)

What to like about this line…

  • The Patriots have allowed the fewest points in the NFL since Week 9, yet they are 0-4 in that span. That’s hard to imagine, but their offense has been that bad. New England has failed to score over 10 points the last three weeks and is down three key starters on offense, which bodes well for the Steelers on a short week.
  • While the Steelers have not been much better, they can appear somewhat competent when driving the ball. They also fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada in the middle of the season, which led to over 400 yards of offense in the Steelers win over the Bengals back in Week 12. Losing Pickett hurts, but they are still the more competent unit of the two.
  • Tomlin and Belichick are two of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL, but it’s Tomlin who has managed to get more with less this season. The Steelers’ offense does not rank very high, but their ability to play bend-don’t-break defense has helped them win games and remain in the playoff picture. The Steelers’ defense ranks sixth in points per game allowed (19.1) on average. This Patriots’ offense ranks last in points per game with 12.3 on average. This game sets up well for this Steelers team, assuming they can get some separation on the scoreboard.

What not to like about this line…

  • While the Patriots offense has been awful, their defense has been pretty good. New England allows the eighth-fewest yards per game (310.5) on average and is fresh off holding the explosive Los Angeles Chargers offense to six points last week. The Patriots also allow just over 21 points per game, and they will face a Steelers offense that has done just enough to win games this season, ranking 26th and 28th across the NFL in yards and points per game on average. The Steelers shouldn’t be favored over a field goal against any team, even the lowly Patriots.
  • Situationally, this is a tough spot to lay close to a touchdown. Yes, the Patriots are awful, but the Steelers really are not that much better statistically. The Steelers have managed to win a lot of the type of games that the Patriots have lost this season. Now, the Steelers are clearly the better team in this matchup but laying close to a touchdown with a total of 30 is downright crazy. Sure, the Steelers could cover this number, but this is a tough spot situationally. Typically, it’s easier to lay points in a game with higher totals. Not only is this a low total, but it’s among the lowest totals in modern NFL history. Points or pass.
  • Kenny Pickett is not exactly a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, but he is undoubtedly a better option than Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky leaves plenty to be desired and enters this game on a short week, less than a full month after the Steelers changed their offensive identity by firing Matt Canada. Furthermore, running back Najee Harris, who has played well as of late, has not practiced this week and is listed as questionable for this matchup. The Patriots will likely aim to take the Steelers’ run game away, which will become much easier with Trubisky under center and Harris either out or limited for this matchup.

Over/Under 30.0 (-110)

What to like about the over…

  • You really do not need much from either team to get over this number. With a total this low, a handful of field goals and a touchdown or two can get you there. There’s always the possibility for a pick-six or a special-teams touchdown with both of these teams as well. The barrier to clear is the lowest it will probably be all season.
  • Thirty-one is a key number when betting on the NFL, so the fact that this total is already through that number makes the over somewhat enticing despite the level of talent on both sidelines. That said, could two bad offenses cancel each other out and actually look decent? Not sure, especially with these two defensive units, but 30 is an absurdly low total for any NFL game in 2023, 2013, 1993, 1983 or 1973.

What to like about the under…

  • What’s there not to like about the under outside of how low the number is? Betting the under is playing with fire, but does anybody have confidence in either one of these teams to run up the score? Trubisky is awful, and the rotation of quarterbacks in New England is like putting lipstick on a pig. Both of these offenses are foul, while the defenses are stout. New England has allowed 26 points total in their last three games, while the Steelers have allowed 47. Two bad offenses against two great defenses could make for a very low-scoring game. Look to see if this gets back up to 31.5 before betting the under.
  • You knew it was coming… primetime under bets are cashing at a 70% rate this season.

Steve Quinne’s Pick: Pittsburgh under 17.5 points (-110)

As bad as the Patriots have been, it’s hard to lay the points with the Steelers with Trubisky running the show. On the flip side, it’s hard to trust the Pats to keep the game within the number considering their recent play and injuries on offense. That said, even when Pickett was under center, the Steelers offense was near the bottom of the leaderboards. It won’t get much better with Trubisky, and the Steelers have gone under this number seven times already this season, including in each of the last three weeks. Let’s look for the Patriots to continue to play solid defense and limit the Steelers’ offense with Trubisky in there and Harris hobbled.