Sep 132012
 

Baltimore Ravens (1-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-0)

Before the season started, I identified 5 teams I thought were overrated and 5 I thought were underrated. The idea was to bet these teams (or against these teams) until I was proven wrong or until the odds makers caught up. It served me well last week. Of the 7 games involving these 10 teams, I nailed 5, including my pick of the week. I unfortunately went 3-6 on my other 9 to finish at .500 for the week ATS, but it’s good to see that my overrated/underrated choices seem to have been pretty accurate. I’ll try to use those this week, unless I feel the odds makers caught up, with two exceptions (San Francisco and Buffalo, two I got wrong last week).

Here, I don’t really feel the odds makers caught up and there’s a good reason for that. Baltimore got a blow out win last week, as I predicted they would, but they did it against Cincinnati. Cincinnati was one of my overrated teams as well, so the Ravens remain overrated because they blew out an overrated opponent. Cincinnati didn’t beat a single playoff team last year and has been hit by the injury bug as hard as maybe any team in football.

Then there’s the issue of Andy Dalton’s arm strength. Jay Gruden did a great job of scheming around his physical limitations last year, but you can only do that for so long. He struggled down the stretch last season, particularly against tougher opponents, and continued that in the preseason and in the opener against Baltimore, where he completed 22 of 37 for 221 yards and a pick. Those numbers don’t even tell the whole story. Only 80 of those 221 yards were in the air; the rest were after the catch. He settled for short stuff all night, completing just 4 passes that went more than 10 yards through the air (4 of 11) and his adjusted QB rating of 66.2 was 26th out of 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL week 1.

Some interpret that game as the Ravens being better than people thought. I’m sticking with my original prediction that the Bengals are just worse than we thought. As for the Ravens, they seem to have an improved offense, but they lost several key contributors defensively and have several others aging and they have yet to prove to me that their struggles on the road and overall inconsistencies are gone. The latter is very important for this game. Yes, they blew out Cincinnati at home, but until they prove they can be consistent and win on the road, something they didn’t do last year, I’m going to continue to pick against them in those situations.

Last year, this team was 4-5 on the road, as opposed to 9-0 at home. They lost to Tennessee by 13, Jacksonville by 5, Seattle by 5, San Diego by 20, and New England by 3, while beating St. Louis by 30, Pittsburgh by 3, Cleveland by 10, and Cincinnati by 8. Only their near win in New England and their win in Pittsburgh were impressive road performances (maybe the blowout win over St. Louis, but they won just 2 games).

They also fell flat after big performances, losing to Seattle and Tennessee after beating Pittsburgh twice. They were just 3-5 SU on the road coming off a win last year. Normally, that wouldn’t trouble me, but they’re 13-17 SU in that situation since Harbaugh/Flacco came in back in 2008. It’s really weird for a team that’s 37-7 SU in all other situations.

This week, they’re coming off a big win, a coming out party of sorts on Monday Night Football, week 1, a blowout win over a divisional foe. However, they did the same thing last year week 1 and lost by 13 in Tennessee the next week. This year, they go to Philadelphia week 2. They are a much better team than Tennessee was last year.

Let’s go on to Philadelphia. I had them as slightly underrated going into the season. I had them making a big improvement over last season, but apparently so did everyone else. Their +68 points differential was best among non-playoff teams by a mile (San Diego was closest at +29). In fact, only 8 teams finished with a higher points differential, which means the Eagles played like a 10 or 11 win team last year, a win total they could have had if they had an average record in close games. Turnovers and records in games decided by less than 7 tend to average out on a year to year basis.

The Eagles had 38 turnovers last year. Teams that turn the ball over 35 times or more in a season have on average 9.7 fewer turnovers the next season and win on average 1.61 more games, since 2002. Add 1.61 wins to what this team’s points differential suggested their wins total should have been and you get an 11-12 win team. Since 2002, 42 teams have 35 or more turnovers and 36 have had 20 or fewer. The 42 teams who’ve had 35 or more turnovers have had 28.3 turnovers on average the next season. That’s only 2 turnovers more than the 26.3 that the 36 teams with 20 or fewer turnovers had the following season.

This year, they may be even more talented. However, the odds makers set their over/under at 10, one of only 9 teams with an over/under of 10 or more and the only non-playoff team in 2011. Because of that, they lost most of their “underratedness” and their week 1 line against Cleveland, -7.5 in Cleveland, was completely reasonable. There was no line value there.

This week, I think there is some line value. At the very least, these two teams are probably about even, so this line should be -3 or higher and that’s not taking into account Baltimore’s consistency and road issues from last season. The final score from last week’s game is a little misleading and skews this line a little, as does Baltimore’s blowout win over the secretly lowly Bengals. Yes, the Eagles did barely beat the Browns by 1 in Cleveland, but they outgained them 456 to 210.

So what happened? Well, the Eagles lost the turnover battle 5 to 4, which was a common problem for them last year and one that will have to get cleaned up. The other issue was just what the Browns did with those turnovers, as opposed to what the Eagles’ did. The Browns returned their 5 takeaways for 88 yards, while the Eagles managed just 13 yards on their 4 takeaways. Preventing the other team from getting a big gain or a score once they have the turnover is way more skill than luck. Even if the Eagles lose the turnover battle again this week, they could still win if they outgain the Ravens, so long as they don’t get killed with turnovers.

They may turn the ball over a couple of times, but so could the Ravens. The Eagles have one of the best defenses in the league. It wasn’t just the Browns’ offense making them look good. The biggest strength of the Eagles’ defense is their pass rush. They were tied for the league lead with 50 sacks last year, lead by 29 sacks from Trent Cole and Jason Babin combined, and could be even better this year as they add rotational rookies Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry and return Brandon Graham from injury. They legitimately go 6 deep at defensive end with Cole, Babin, Graham, Curry, Darryl Tapp, and Phillip Hunt. For what it’s worth, I think they have 6 defensive ends better than Frostee Rucker, who starts at defensive end for the Eagles. They go 3 deep at defensive tackle with Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri, and Cox. I think they might have the deepest defensive line in football.

Moving back on the Eagles defense, they added two much needed starters at linebacker this offseason, DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. Though the latter is a 2nd round rookie, linebackers typically don’t take as long to transition to the NFL. Their secondary also makes a lot more sense this year than last year, even though they lost Asante Samuel. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will no longer be playing on the slot, where he is such a poor fit. Heading into a contract year, DRC should be motivated and playing outside again will allow him to have a bounce back year. He really played well against the Browns.

Now on the slot is 4th round rookie Brandon Boykin. He might have been the top coverage cornerback in the draft after Morris Claiborne, but fell because of his lack of size and injury. He’s healthy now and his lack of size doesn’t matter much on the slot, where he figures to have a positive impact. Meanwhile, Nnamdi Asomugha will no longer be playing in zone coverage, like they had him in for the first 12 games of last season. Asomugha was a terrible fit in that scheme and played much better in their final 4 games once they allowed him to play man. He’s one of the top cornerbacks in the league in the right coverage scheme and it’s no coincidence they had the league’s best passing defense in their final 4 games once Asomugha started playing much better and that carries over into last week.

With DRC and Asomugha both playing like shutdown cornerbacks, they should be able to put the clamps on the Ravens’ new found explosive offense. They’ll certainly find it a lot tougher to move the ball in Philadelphia against the Eagles than they did at home against a Bengals team missing two key cornerbacks and their top pass rusher.

As for the Ravens’ defense, they’re still good, but they did allow 322 yards of offense to the Bengals, which is a cause for concern. Terrell Suggs is out and Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding, two key parts of their run defense last year, are gone. Young players have to play more than they’re used to and they didn’t play very well against the Bengals. On top of that, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are aging. Unless the Eagles get killed in the turnover battle like they did so many times last year, they should be able to win this game at home and, as I mentioned earlier, turnover differentials can be very inconsistent on a year to year basis.

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 Philadelphia covers)

Philadelphia Eagles 31 Baltimore Ravens 17

Pick against spread: Philadelphia -2 (-110) 3 units

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