Baltimore Ravens (7-5) at Cleveland Browns (9-3)
These two teams met way back in week 1 in Baltimore, where the Ravens won in dominant fashion by a final score of 38-6 as 7-point favorites. After that game, it looked like it would be more of the same for these two teams this season as last season, when the Browns disappointed against high expectations and the Ravens won most of their games with ease en route to a 14-2 regular season, but a lot has changed since then, as the Browns have won 9 of 11 games since that blowout loss week 1, while the Ravens are just 7-5, two games behind the Browns in the standings.
The Ravens finished last season easily #1 in first down rate differential at +6.34% (no one else higher than +4.13%), but this year they rank just 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.20%. Their defense has been solid, but their offensive dropoff has been jarring, as they’ve gone from far and away the best in the league to just 26th in first down rate over expected at -2.24%. Part of it is that quarterback Lamar Jackson hasn’t kept up his MVP caliber play and their offensive schemes haven’t caught teams off guard the way they did last year either, but they also are simply missing key parts of last season’s offense.
Right guard Marshal Yanda retired before the season started, despite a dominant 2019, and the loss of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle to season ending injuries just made things even worse, as those three were arguably their three best run blockers in 2019, which was a key to their offensive system. The Ravens have gotten back the players they were without due to COVID, but they’re still far from 100% with key players out indefinitely.
Their defense isn’t in as bad shape as their offense, but they’ve still had some injury issues on that side of the ball, including the current injury to stud defensive end Calais Campbell, who is expected to be very limited if he can play at all. The Ravens could still be a playoff team and I would expect them to be better than they’ve been thus far on offense, but they’re far from the dominant team they were last season or that they looked like after their week 1 win over the Browns.
The Browns, meanwhile, have had other clunker performances, scoring single digit points and losing by double digits in all three of their losses, leading to them being -15 in point differential despite a 9-3 record. Their record is largely the result of a 6-0 record in one score games, which is not sustainable long-term, and they haven’t played a particularly tough schedule either, with some of their one score wins coming against the likes of the Jaguars, the Eagles, and the Bengals (twice). In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Browns are about even with the Ravens, ranking 25th at -2.18%.
However, there is reason to believe the Browns can be better than that going forward, perhaps significantly so. For one, their issues have been primarily concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, where they rank 28th in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.35%, which is the best side of the ball to have issues on, because defensive performance tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. The Browns aren’t a great defense, but they’re more talented than they’ve played thus far, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them be a more serviceable unit going forward, which would allow the Browns to get more big wins.
The Browns’ offense has been nothing to write home about overall, ranking 17th in first down rate over expected at +0.17%, but they’ve been a lot better in recent weeks, since getting Nick Chubb and Wyatt Teller back from four-game absences and since quarterback Baker Mayfield got over the rib injury he played through earlier in the season. That strong offensive play should continue going forward, so, if their defense can even be a mediocre group going forward, this is not going to be an easy team to face. I have the Browns 10th in my roster rankings, about two points better than the Ravens, so my calculated line has the Browns favored by a field goal, at home with limited fans in the stands. Instead, they are home underdogs of a field goal, so we’re getting great line value. The Browns are worth a big play if you can get the full field goal and a smaller play at +2.5.
Cleveland Browns 27 Baltimore Ravens 24 Upset Pick +130
Pick against the spread: Cleveland +3