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PITTSBURGH STEELERS (2-5) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (6-2)
 
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: New England -7 & 43.5
Opening Line & Total: Patriots -6.5 & 44
 
Two struggling offenses collide when the Patriots host the Steelers on Sunday.
 
Pittsburgh has failed to reach 20 points in each of its past three contests while averaging only 297 total YPG in this span. New England QB Tom Brady has had a horrible four-game stretch (52% completion pct., 5.4 YPA, 2 TD, 4 INT), as his team has alternated wins and losses. Brady's offense has been saved by his team's defense that has allowed just 4.9 yards per play this season (6th in NFL). The Steelers' defense has also stood tall recently, allowing just 14.3 PPG and 278 total YPG over the past three contests. But the unit has not been able to figure out Brady, who has a 6-2 record, 276 passing YPG, 16 TD and only 3 INT in his career versus Pittsburgh. However, the Steelers have won two of the past three meetings, including a 33-10 rout in their most recent visit to Foxboro in 2008. They also benefit from the fact that NFL road underdogs off a road loss in November games are 50-18 ATS (74%) over the past 10 seasons. But New England, which is 4-0 SU (3-1 ATS) at home this year, usually bounces back strong after a poor passing game, going 23-6 ATS (79%) after failing to surpass 150 passing yards in a game since Bill Belichick took over as head coach.
 
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Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is in the midst of his worst season since 2008, based on his 87.2 passer rating. He's thrown for 1,930 yards (276 YPG, 7.4 YPA), but has just 8 TD passes and 11 turnovers (7 INT, 4 lost fumbles). Although he's just 3-4 in his career versus New England, he has still thrown for 1,756 yards (251 YPG), 14 TD and 6 INT in these seven meetings. What has also hurt him this season is a dreadful ground game that averages only 68.7 rushing YPG (3rd-worst in NFL) and 3.3 yards per carry (4th-worst in league). Injuries to virtually every starting offensive lineman have certainly taken its toll. The team has scored a meager 17.9 PPG (5th-worst in NFL) due largely to a horrible red-zone efficiency of just 40% (3rd-worst in league). While the defense has stepped up recently, its lack of big plays has certainly hurt, as Pittsburgh has failed to force a turnover in five of its seven contests this year. However, the team still ranks fourth in the NFL in total defense (303 YPG allowed), fourth in first downs allowed (17.1 per game) and second in passing defense (181 YPG).
 
Despite the well-chronicled problems of the passing offense for the Patriots (5.5 passing YPA, 2nd-worst in league), they have actually been effective moving the football on the ground with 120.6 rushing YPG on 4.2 YPC, both categories which rank 12th in the NFL. RB Stevan Ridley has rushed for a touchdown in three straight games, averaging 5.0 YPC over this stretch. But New England has not been able to punch the ball in with any consistency, ranking second-to-last in the league in Goal to Go efficiency (46.7%). The loss of RT Sebastian Vollmer (broken leg) last week will certainly hurt too. The good news for QB Tom Brady is that all of his receivers have been healthy all week during practice, and his timing with WR Danny Amendola and TE Rob Gronkowski, who have both missed the majority of the season, should improve. The defense is a battered mess with DT Vince Wilfork (ankle) and LB Jerod Mayo (pectoral) both done for the season, and DT Tommy Kelly (knee), CB Aqib Talib (hip) and CB Kyle Arrington (groin) all questionable to play. But the unit continues to hold strong, especially with its excellent red-zone defense (44%, 5th-best in NFL), which has led to 18.0 PPG allowed (5th-best in NFL). New England is also doing a great job of forcing turnovers, with at least one in every game and 16 total takeaways this season.
  
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (1-6) at DALLAS COWBOYS (4-4)
 
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: Dallas -10.5 & 48.5
Opening Line & Total: Cowboys -10.5 & 48
 
The Vikings are still looking for their first win on American soil when they visit a Cowboys team eager to erase last week’s stunning loss.
 
Since Minnesota beat the Steelers in London, the club has lost three straight games by a combined 54 points, making it 0-6 SU (1-5 ATS) in U.S.-based games. Dallas led by 10 points with four minutes left in Detroit last week, but allowed an 80-yard TD drive in the -final minute to lose 31-30. But the team still managed to cover the spread for the fourth game in a row and improved to 7-1 ATS on the season. The Vikings have gained just 246 YPG during their losing skid, while the Cowboys have forced 11 turnovers during their four-game ATS win streak. Minnesota is 7-1 (SU and ATS) in its past eight meetings with Dallas, but the one loss was the most recent visit to Big D in 2007 when the Cowboys prevailed 24-14. The Vikings have a few trends in their favor including the fact that all NFL teams after a game where they forced no turnovers against an opponent after a game where they forced 3+ turnovers are 134-79 ATS (63%) over the past 10 seasons. But Dallas is 23-10 ATS (70%) after allowing 300+ passing yards in its last game since 1992. Both teams have a slew of injuries, as Minnesota's secondary could be thin with S Harrison Smith (toe) out, and both CB Chris Cook (hip) and S Jamarca Sanford (groin) questionable. The Cowboys expect to get top RB DeMarco Murray (knee) back in action, but they could be without three key players in WR Miles Austin (hamstring), DE DeMarcus Ware (quad) and CB Morris Claiborne (hamstring).
 
Minnesota has not announced whether Christian Ponder or Josh Freeman will start under center, but Ponder has been taking most of the first-team reps all week and is expected to start. Both signal callers have had subpar seasons, with Ponder throwing for just two touchdowns and five picks over four games while Freeman has completed a pathetic 42.9% of his passes with 2 TD and 4 INT in his four games. The lack of a consistent quarterback and true go-to receiver (nobody has reached 30 receptions) has led to a mere 306 total YPG (4th-fewest in NFL) and 203 passing YPG (6th-fewest in league) for the Vikings, but they have still scored 23.3 PPG, which ranks 16th in the NFL. Although the ground game has generated only 103.3 rushing YPG (18th in league), its 4.6 yards per carry is sixth-best in the NFL. RB Adrian Peterson is averaging 81.6 rushing YPG, but that number is way down from his 131.1 rushing YPG from his 2,000-yard campaign in 2012. But he has been much more effective over his past four contests with a 4.9 YPC rate compared to his 4.1 YPC rate in the first three weeks of the season. Peterson has rushed for 136 yards (3.8 YPC) and 2 TD in two career games versus Dallas. The Minnesota defense has played poorly all season, but has been on the field for a whopping 35:07, which is the most in the NFL. This has led to 402 total YPG allowed (3rd-most in league), but it's not all the fault of the offense, as the defensive unit has allowed 51% conversions on third down leading to 24.1 first downs per game, which are both the worst defensive rates in the NFL. The Vikings started out the season with 12 forced turnovers in four games, but they have just one takeaway over the past three contests. With such a talented defensive line, there's no reason this team shouldn't have more than the 14 sacks they have generated in 2013 (five sacks over past three games).
 
Dallas was supposed to run the football more this year with new offensive coordinator Bill Callahan calling the plays, but the team currently ranks 27th in the league in rushing offense (80.6 YPG) with 3.7 YPC (24th in NFL). Top RB DeMarco Murray has been inactive the past two games with a knee injury though, and he should return Sunday to try to keep up his strong 4.7 YPC this season. The Cowboys have thrived through the air in 2013 with 261.3 passing YPG (8th in NFL). QB Tony Romo ranks among the top-7 quarterbacks in the NFL in passer rating (101.7), pass attempts (295), completions (195), completion percentage (66.1%), passing yards (2,216) and passing touchdowns (18), while tossing just five interceptions. His top WR Dez Bryant had an outburst on the sidelines during last week's loss in protest of his season-low-tying six targets, but he still has 20 more targets than any of his teammates this year, which has resulted in 45 catches for 641 yards and 8 TD. With WR Miles Austin still bothered by a bad hamstring, rookie WR Terrance Williams has stepped up with 384 receiving yards and 4 TD over the past five games. The Dallas defense was torched last week for 623 total yards, including 480 through the air. But that wasn't a huge surprise considering the unit ranks last in the NFL in both total defense (422.5 YPG) and passing defense (315.4 YPG), while allowing the league's second-most first downs (23.9 per game). A weak pass rush (eight sacks over past five games) hasn't helped the cause, but the Cowboys have done a great job in forcing turnovers with 2+ takeaways in each of the past four games and 19 forced turnovers this year.
 
ATLANTA FALCONS (2-5) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-3)
 
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: Carolina -8 & 45
Opening Line & Total: Panthers -6.5 & 43.5
 
The sizzling-hot Panthers seek a fourth straight win when they host the slumping Falcons on Sunday.
 
Atlanta suffered its worst loss of the season with Matt Ryan’s 4 INT resulting in a 27-13 defeat in Arizona. Meanwhile, Carolina has zero turnovers during its three-game win streak (SU and ATS), in which it has won by a combined score of 96 to 38. QB Cam Newton has completed 77.3% of his passes for 667 yards and 6 TD during the surge. The Falcons have rushed for a pathetic 41.8 YPG in the past four weeks, while the Panthers rank second in the NFL with 79.3 rushing YPG allowed. Atlanta is 5-1 SU (4-2 ATS) in the past six meetings with Carolina, but the teams split their two contests last year with both home teams winning straight-up, while the Panthers covered in both meetings thanks to 394 rushing yards in the two games. Both teams have significant offensive injuries, as the Falcons are without WR Julio Jones (foot) for the season, and could also be missing WR Roddy White (hamstring), OT Sam Baker (knee) and RB Jason Snelling (ankle) who are all questionable. Carolina's top rusher, RB DeAngelo Williams, has been slowed by a quad injury, but RB Jonathan Stewart (ankles) expects to make his season debut in this game. Atlanta doesn't usually have two bad games in a row under head coach Mike Smith, going 11-0 ATS after a double-digit loss and 12-1 ATS after scoring 14 points or less. But the Panthers are 13-2 ATS after three straight games with a positive turnover margin since 1992, and 7-0 ATS when allowing less than 100 rushing yards in two straight games over the past two seasons.
 
Despite the Falcons having the NFL's worst ground game (62.4 rushing YPG) that has gained a mere 3.4 yards per carry (6th-fewest in NFL), they continue to move the football through the air with 300.4 passing YPG (4th in NFL). Despite not having his top two receivers, QB Matt Ryan has still thrown for 2,223 yards (5th in NFL) with 14 TD (T-8th in league) and just seven interceptions. However, four of those picks came last week on the road, where Atlanta is now 0-3 (SU and ATS) with a mere 17.7 PPG and eight turnovers (minus-4 TO margin). Ryan has a great chance to bounce back though, as he has had huge career success versus the Panthers with a 7-3 record, 2,518 passing YPG, 17 TD and 6 INT in 10 meetings. He'll look mostly to WR Harry Douglas, who has blossomed with a larger role in the passing game with 19 catches (on 25 targets) for 270 yards and a touchdown over the past two weeks. But both of the club's top running backs have really struggled with RB Steven Jackson gaining a career-low 3.3 yards per carry and RB Jacquizz Rodgers even lower at 3.2 YPC. Defensively, the Falcons rank 27th out of 32 NFL teams in a number of categories, including yards per pass attempt (7.3), yards per carry (4.6) and third-down conversion rate (44.1%). But the biggest problem could be the team's lack of takeaways, as it has generated multiple turnovers just once all season. This doesn't bode well against a Carolina team that has made no big mistakes during its win streak.
 
Panthers QB Cam Newton has been rolling in his past three games, but those wins have come versus Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay, which have a combined 4-18 record this season. The recent surge puts him seventh in the NFL in passer rating (97.6), due to his 7.7 YPA, 12 TD and just 5 INT this year. Newton also played very well in last year's series with Atlanta, completing 64.4% of his passes for 502 yards (8.5 YPA), 4 TD and 0 INT, plus burning them on the ground for 202 yards on 18 carries (11.2 YPC) with two more scores. With both of his top rushers less than 100 percent, Newton will likely carry the football a lot more on Sunday. The Panthers' offense has ground up a 33:39 time of possession (2nd in NFL) and Newton has also done a great job delivering when it matters most, ranking among the top five NFL teams in converting third downs (45.3%), red-zone efficiency (65.2%) and Goal to Go efficiency (81.8%). Newton has also spread the wealth among his receivers, as five Panthers have multiple touchdown receptions this year and four have surpassed 275 receiving yards. Defensively, Carolina has been fierce, especially against the run where it has held each of the past five opponents to 90 yards or less, allowing just 67.2 rushing YPG on 3.7 YPC over this span. The unit has stayed fresh all season with just 26:16 time of possession, leading to 301.4 total YPG allowed (3rd in NFL). The defense has also held strong in the red zone (37.5% efficiency, 4th in league) that has led to its paltry 13.7 PPG allowed (2nd in NFL). The Panthers have also shown the ability to make plays with at least one takeaway in all seven contests, including three forced turnovers in three of the past five games.
 

  
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Rogers: AFC North Preview
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