Heinz Field is the locale for a Thursday night throwdown between the Carolina Panthers and the Pittsburgh Steelers (8:20 p.m., FOX). The surging Steelers (5-2-1) were installed as four-point favorites over the ascending Panthers (6-2), with the betting total set at 51.5 points.
The Le’Veon Bell distraction seems to be in the rearview mirror for Pittsburgh, as they’ve reeled off four straight wins and covers. That includes three divisional wins in as many weeks. Ben Roethlisberger and company haven’t even been torching opposing defenses as they usually do; the Steelers’ suddenly stifling defense has surrendered just 18 points per game over their last four contests. This could be a problem for the Panthers, who have averaged just 20.7 points per game in three road tilts this season. They’re only 1-2 away from home in 2018, and 2-4 against the spread in this spot dating back to last season.
Carolina is eighth at stopping the run this year, but James Conner has been a force to be reckoned with out of the backfield of late. He’s tallied four straight games of 100 or more rushing yards and has won the favor of his club.
“James [Conner] is going above and beyond,” Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters on Sunday. “I’m more pleased by what he’s doing in the passing game and from a blitz-pickup standpoint. That’s a little bit more unique than the rushing. We knew he could run the ball.”
Roethlisberger, who survived a scary hit on Sunday, should be licking his chops as he matches up with the Panthers’ 19th-ranked pass stoppers. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster could get loose in the secondary early and often.
Cam Newton and company rely on a run-heavy style of offense to compile points, but the Steelers’ specialty is stymieing the ground game. They’re sixth in the NFL in yards per game allowed in that department. If Newton is forced to drop back often for Carolina, it could lead to trouble. The Panthers are 1-2 this season when the former first overall pick throws more than 35 passes in a game.
Carolina’s care for the football (plus-8 turnover ratio compared to the Steelers’ minus-3) and discipline (49 penalties assessed in 2018 compared to Pittsburgh’s 74) will keep them in this game, but Pittsburgh should prevail at home. Give the four points with the Steelers.
Prediction: Steelers win, 27-20
The play: Steelers -4