Baltimore Ravens (5-1) at Houston Texans (5-1)
This is a very interesting game for a number of reasons. The most obvious is Baltimore’s injuries. This line was at -4 a week ago, but because of Baltimore’s injuries, it’s shifted 3 points, even though Baltimore won and Houston got blown out at home. In spite of that, we still are getting a slight public lean on Houston. Houston is heading into a bye this week and touchdown favorites heading into a bye are 43-20 ATS since 2002, which would appear to make Houston the obvious choice this week. However, it must be questioned, because of the huge line movement, if Houston deserves to be touchdown favorites here. If they don’t, it makes more sense to take the points and fade the public.
In order to determine if Houston deserves to be favored by this much over the Ravens, it must be discussed, what kind of team Baltimore had before injuries, how the injuries will affect their talent level, and what kind of mental state they will be in and other intangibles. The first thing is the simplest. We’ll just look at an old gambler stat: yards per play differential.
Injuries aside, Baltimore ranks 2nd in the league in yards per play differential, actually higher than Houston. An old formula says to take the difference in differentials, divide by .15 and add 3 points either way to get the “real” line. By that formula, Baltimore should actually be favored by a half point here on the road, injuries aside of course.
One issue I noticed with using solely this metric, which a lot of bettors do, is it puts too much value on teams that get a lot of big plays, but can’t sustain drives (or conversely, teams that don’t allow a lot of big plays, but can’t get off the field defensively). Think about it. You pass for 30 yards and then gain no yards on your next 3 plays and have to punt. That’s 7.5 yards per play, which is incredibly impressive, but you didn’t sustain a drive. So I’ve essentially created a new statistic called, rate of sustaining drives, not to replace the traditional metric, but to see if any teams are much better in one than the other.
Basically, how I created it is I took first downs and divided it by first downs + turnovers + punts + failed 4th downs. Basically, what it essentially measures is, on any given 1st and 10, how often does a team get another 1st down or sustain the drive. Turnovers (whether traditional or on downs) and punts are obviously failures to achieve 1st and 10. This measures first downs divided by chances at a first down (first downs + failures to achieve 1st and 10).
You can also do this for the defense, how often they can get the opposing team off the field on any given 1st and 10. The statistic is in the form of a percentage and you can subtract the offensive one from the defensive one to get the differential. For example, Houston is at +10.1%, while Baltimore is at +0.2%. The difference between the percents is 9.9, divide by 1.5 this time (which conveniently works very well with the numbers) and add 3 points either way for home field and you get a line of Houston -9.5.
It’s also worth noting that their yards per play differential metric is heavily based on their rank as the league’s #1 team in yards per play. If you truly believe this is the #1 offense in the league, then the yards per play differential metric should make sense to you alone, but if you don’t believe that, which you probably don’t, then you probably disagree that they were the 2nd best team in the league before injuries.
One thing that both metrics agrees about the Ravens is that they were an average defense team before the injuries. That will obviously decline (more on that later) with the injuries, but it’s worth noting that this team wasn’t playing great football before the injuries either. They’ve won 4 straight, but all by 7 or fewer, including games against the lowly Chiefs and Browns. Teams are 11-16 ATS off 4 straight wins of 7 or fewer, which makes some sense because they tend to be overrated based solely off their record,
Now going onto the injuries, the one that everyone is talking about is Ray Lewis, but that’s not their most important injury. He’s been pretty average, not just by his standards, but by anyone’s standards this year. They’ll miss his on the field leadership most of all, but he’ll still be around as a locker room presence. Lardarius Webb’s injury will hurt the most. One of two starting cornerbacks to not surrender a touchdown last year, Webb has allowed 11 catches for 111 yards on 24 attempts, with 1 interception this year and was by far their best defensive back on a struggling pass defense, which already ranked 22nd in the league in YPA allowed. Their struggling pass rush wasn’t helping things as they rank 27th in pass rush efficiency.
Speaking of the pass rush, guess who is trying to play football this weekend: Terrell Suggs. Yes, less than 6 months after tearing his Achilles, Suggs’ friends and family are expected to be at the game in Houston watching him play, barring a setback. Suggs was activated from the PUP this week and was expected to begin light practice with the hope of returning in 3 weeks, but with Lewis and Webb going down, Suggs obviously felt a sense of urgency. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the reason their pass rush is struggling this year is because of Suggs’ absence.
However, I question if this is a wise move for Suggs. I love the intensity and competitiveness to want to be out there and helping your team and him playing, or even him not playing but trying to play, could be a huge emotional boost for this team (more on that later). However, guys seem to be coming back from major injuries like torn ACLs or Achilles much faster than normal and they rarely have success.
Just this year, guys like Leon Hall and Rashard Mendenhall came back from injuries that normally take a year in 10 and 9 months respectively. Both struggled before suffering another leg injury, likely caused by overcompensation. Going back a few years, Wes Welker returned in 8 months and while he didn’t get reinjured, he had by far his worst season with the Patriots. Adrian Peterson seems to be the only one who has returned from a major injury, been his old self, and not reinjured himself and he’s a freak of nature. I don’t question that Suggs is as well, but the odds are against him and even Peterson took 9 months. Suggs could have a major emotional impact on this team, but I doubt he’d play well.
That leads perfectly into the emotional aspect. Think about the Ravens’ situation this week. They’re 5-1 and one of only two teams in the conference with a winning record. You’re getting a chance to play the other winning team in your conference, a team you beat twice last year, and people are not only writing you off in this game because of a couple injuries, but predicting that you will miss the playoffs and even if you make it, you won’t advance deep. It’s all over the media. This is a proud veteran team with plenty of bulletin board material. They’re touchdown underdogs here, something that’s only happened once in the John Harbaugh era in Baltimore, a cover and near win in New England in last year’s AFC Championship game. Suggs’ attempt to return has to only get them fired up even more for this game.
One other trend works against Houston. Teams who start 4-0 or better are 19-31 ATS as a favorite off their first loss. I also want to mention one injury that no one is talking about: Brian Cushing, who is also done for the year. He tore his ACL 2 weeks ago against the Jets and in their first game without him, the Texans surrendered 42 points at home to the Packers, but no one seems to care about that. There’ are a lot of uncertainties in this game thanks to injuries, but I’m going to grab the points and fade the public for a small play.
Public lean: Baltimore (new thing I’m adding, siding with the odds makers on bets is not a bad thing to do since they make so much money, so I’m listing this here to allow readers to “fade” the public, if they so choose, in this example, the odds makers win if Houston covers.
Sharps lean: HOU 11 BAL 11
Final update: Terrell Suggs will play for the Ravens. That’s a huge emotional lift for a team already playing for respect. I’m adding another unit on Baltimore.
Houston Texans 31 Baltimore Ravens 27
Pick against spread: Baltimore +7 (-110) 2 units