Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2014 Wild Card Round NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

I’m glad the Ravens made the playoffs. If San Diego had been able to beat the Chiefs, it would have eliminated the Ravens, regardless of what the Ravens did in their game against the Browns, and they would have missed the playoffs despite finishing the season ranked 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential at 5.62%. Even when you adjust that for their weaker schedule, they still come in 4th among playoff teams at 4.94%, only behind consensus top teams Denver, Seattle, and New England. The Ravens went 10-6 despite a 2-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, finished 5th in DVOA, and their +107 point differential was 6th among playoff teams, so they definitely fit in among some of the best in the NFL.

The Ravens also come into the playoffs as the 4th hottest teams, ranking 4th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential among playoff teams at 10.56%, only behind Seattle, Carolina, and Dallas. However, that’s a little skewed because the Ravens faced back-to-back 3rd string quarterbacks against Houston and Cleveland and even schedule adjusted differential doesn’t take injuries into account. Their defense accounted for 11.09% of that, while their offense fared below average given their competition at -0.53%.

Their defensive performance was still very impressive even when you remember that they faced Case Keenum and Connor Shaw in back-to-back weeks and their defense gets an added boost this week, as Haloti Ngata returns from injury, but that offense is a concern, especially since the Ravens figure to be without both starting tackles Eugene Monroe and Ricky Wagner once again in this one. Both of them missed the Ravens’ uninspiring week 17 offensive performance against the Browns. Wagner is on injured reserve and Monroe didn’t practice all week.

Wagner has been the better of the two this season, as Monroe struggled in the first season of his big contract, but both of their backups are significant downgrades and won’t help an offense that’d already been stagnating over the past month or so. More bad news for the Ravens, they’ve been significantly better at home than on the road this season. At home, they’ve moved the chains at a 77.91% rate, as opposed to 67.26% for their opponents (a differential of 10.65%), while they’ve moved the chains at a 73.91% rate on the road, as opposed to 72.97% for their opponents (a differential of 0.94%). This home/road disparity is nothing new as since Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh came in before the 2008 season, the Ravens are 47-11 straight up, outscoring opponents by an average of 10.33 points per game, at home, as opposed to 34-33, outscoring opponents by an average of 1.04 points per game on the road, a swing of about 9-9.5 points. The Ravens are on the road here.

If the Ravens are going to pull the upset here, their defense is going to have to continue playing well and slow down a Pittsburgh offense that ranks 3rd among playoff teams in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains. Fortunately, for the Ravens, they aren’t the only ones with serious injury problems as Le’Veon Bell has been ruled out for the Steelers. Bell was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back this season, grading out above average as a runner, pass catcher, and blocker.

He rushed for 1361 yards and 8 touchdowns on 290 carries, a 4.69 YPC, caught 83 passes for 854 yards and 3 touchdowns, and played the 2nd most snaps among running backs this season, showing true three down ability and amazing durability. In his absence, the Steelers will use a committee of Josh Harris, Dri Archer, and Ben Tate. Harris and Archer are rookies with 26 combined carries, while Tate has averaged 3.12 yards per carry on 119 carries this season, is on his 4th team this calendar year, just arrived this week, and doesn’t know the offense yet.

It’s about as big of a downgrade as you can get and not good news as the Steelers get set to take on a tough Baltimore defense, led by a punishing front 7 that should be able to stuff the Steelers’ running game, make them one-dimensional, and unleash their pass rushers. The Steelers have a strong offensive line, but the Steelers’ running back situation will hurt their blitz pickup ability and their check down ability in the face of pressure. If the Steelers are going to have a successful day offensively, it’s going to be because Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton are able to win one-on-ones against a weak group of Baltimore cornerbacks, which they have a decent chance of doing.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens have a good chance of getting their offense back on track, despite missing both of their tackles, because the Steelers have the 2nd worst defense among playoff teams in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains allowed. They’ve been a little bit better over their past 4 games, playing about league average, and they get Troy Polamalu back this week after he missed week 16 and week 17 (though he hasn’t been that good this season), but it’s still a unit the Ravens can have success against.

The Ravens seem like the right side. They’ve been the better team all season and over the past 4 games, with an edge in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over both of those time periods (the Steelers have a slight edge over the past 8 games). The Steelers also have the worst injury situation as Le’Veon Bell is significantly more valuable than anyone the Ravens will be without this week. Despite that, we’re getting 3.5 points with the Ravens and the public is on the Steelers. I just can’t be too confident considering the Ravens’ road struggles.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +3.5

Confidence: Medium

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