Do the Steelers Take Weak Teams Lightly?

Over the past few years I have heard the complaints of the local radio personalities as well as my mother, who claim that the Steelers take their opponents lightly and often lose games that they should have won. Pittsburgh’s football team has been successful by most measures in recent history, but that success has created a fan base with very high expectations. And perhaps has also produced a team that does not work as hard to prepare for their lesser opponents.

But is it true?

While some fans might think they should win every game, we will focus only on the games in which they were favored. In the five seasons since they won Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers have been the favorites in nearly three of every four games (59 of 80).

In short, they have gone 42-17 in those games. And while only winning 71% of the games you are favored in may sound low, it is actually higher than the rest of the League, which wins 67%.

Let’s take it a step further though by breaking down the weeks they were favored point-by-point. If we look at all NFL games over the past five years (almost 1300) we find that as the spread increases, the accuracy of the pick increases steadily as well. Teams who were favored to win by one point won just 51% of the time, whereas teams who were favored to win by 11 points won 90% of the time. We are not concerned about covering the spread here, simply winning the game.

Let’s graph it out point-by-point, although keep in mind that the Steelers’ line will look a bit wonky since they have played so few games as compared to the rest of the League.

Steelers Graph

As we can see, Pittsburgh is better than most teams in games that they are favored at five points or less. They have won 67%, compared to a 56% League average. When they are favored by more than five points, however, our doubters may have a point. Pittsburgh has won 75% of their games while the rest of the League has won 80%. It may only be a difference of two games out of 28, but it would have been very clear that they were the favorite going in. It would have also included games like Pittsburgh’s most notable failure—a 27-24 defeat at the hands of Oakland in December 2009. A 15-point favorite entering the game, the game was the biggest upset in the NFL over the past five years.

While there appears to be some confirmation bias at play overall, there is some truth that the Steelers lose when they are ‘supposed’ to win more than most.