Before the season started, most football fans could guess that the New England Patriots (7-1) would be atop the standings – but few outside of the Lone Star State would have predicted the Dallas Cowboys (7-1) to be matching the Belichick-Brady juggernaut step for step.
As has been well documented, both teams lost their star quarterbacks suddenly before Week 1, with Tom Brady suspended for his role in the Pats’ “Deflategate” fiasco, and Tony Romo felled by a broken bone in his back during a Cowboys preseason game.
Forced to adjust on the fly, New England displayed its usual dominance even without Brady, while Dallas has hitched its wagon to the veteran-like play of rookie Dak Prescott – with rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott shouldering his share of the offensive load.
Sporting identical 7-1 records, the Pats and Boys have staked themselves to the inside track toward a top playoff seed – ensuring the simplest path of a first-round bye and two home victories en route to Super Bowl 51. And for Dallas, that long-awaited return to football’s promised land would be an in-state affair, as Houston is this year’s host site for the big game.
The Patriots are fresh off their bye week – following a 41-25 revenge-style dismantling of the Buffalo Bills (4-5) in Week 8 – and they’ll face a familiar foe on Sunday Night Football when the Seattle Seahawks (5-2-1) come to town.
New England escaped with their fourth Super Bowl win under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady two years ago, and Seattle will undoubtedly be harboring a grudge ahead of the first rematch since head coach Pete Carroll infamously chose to pass from the goal line, rather than let since retired running back Marshawn Lynch tote the rock.
Despite the revenge factor though, the consensus among sportsbooks opened New England as big 9-point home favorites, before the line fell to its current 7.5 points.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, just rolled over the hapless Cleveland Browns (0-9) in a 35-10 scrimmage session, but the competition will be stiffer this Sunday. Dallas heads northward for a matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4), but with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggling in his rushed return from injury last week, the Black and Gold may be outgunned by America’s Team.
Pittsburgh has dropped three straight games, and none have been particularly close, while Dallas has reeled off seven consecutive victories. Of more concern to bettors, Dallas is the only team in the league that hasn’t lost to the number this season, compiling a 7-0-1 against the spread (ATS) mark.
But even with momentum tracking in opposite directions, the Bovada sportsbook lists the Steelers as 2.5-point home favorites, suggesting that the markets still aren’t convinced by the thus far flawless Prescott/Elliott tandem.
Aside from those dueling Main Events, the NFL undercard features several close inter-conference contests.
The high-octane New Orleans Saints (4-4) take on the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (6-3), and with home turf on their side Bovada makes the Saints slim 2.5-point favorites.
The up and down Tennessee Titans (4-5) battle the disappointing Green Bay Packers (4-4), but even outside of Lambeau Field, Bovada tabs the Pack as 3-point road favorites.
Looking to right the ship after a disastrous 1-5 start, the Carolina Panthers (3-5) have won two straight. They’ll host the consistent Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) as 3-point favorites with a potential season-saver on the line.