Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1)

The primary stat I use to handicap games is schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which tends to be more predictive than other stats because it minimizes the impact of stats that tend to be less predictable on a week-to-week basis, like turnover margins, return touchdowns, missed field goals, big plays, and third and fourth down conversion rates. It also takes into account level of competition. One thing that stands out when looking at this stat is the Ravens, who lead the league with a +130 point differential, but rank just 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.81%. 

Part of that is because the Ravens have played a significantly below average schedule, but beyond that a deeper dive into the numbers is needed. The Ravens had a stretch earlier this season where they lost 4 of 5 games, but one of those games was a game in which the Ravens were missing seemingly half their team due to COVID protocols and the Ravens have won 4 straight games since. Upon closer look into those 4 games, the reasons why the Ravens rank so much lower in first down rate than points start to show.

In their first win, they played the Cowboys and actually lost the first down rate battle by 2.63%, despite winning the game by 17. The Cowboys picked up 29 first downs in that game, but had one play over 20 yards and missed 3 field goals, so their first downs didn’t translate to many points against the Ravens. In their second win, it was a close game down to the wire against the Browns and the Ravens won the first down rate battle by just 0.93%. In their third win, they won the first down rate battle by 9.57%, but against Jacksonville, who ranks dead last in the NFL.

Last week, they beat the Giants by 14, but lost the first down rate battle by 0.21%. The Giants had trouble sustaining drives because they went just 1 for 10 on third down and 1 for 3 on fourth down, while the Ravens went 8 for 11 on third down and didn’t have to attempt a fourth down, but third and fourth down performance tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and it’s very concerning to see that the Giants got 22 of their 24 first downs on first and second down, as performance on those downs tends to be more predictive. 

Looking back even further reveals a similar pattern. Their one win during the stretch in which they lost four of five came against the Colts by 14 points, but the Ravens lost the first down rate battle by 0.26%. The Colts primarily lost because they went 2 of 12 on third down, 2 of 4 on 4th down, and gave up a return touchdown. The Ravens’ last win before that rough stretch came by 2 against the Eagles in a game in which the Eagles won the first down rate battle by 2.99%, but went 3 for 12 on 3rd down, 1 for 3 on 4th down, and lost the turnover battle by 1. 

In total, the Ravens are just +3 in turnover margin and +1 in return touchdown margin on the season, but they lead the league in opponent’s field goal percentage allowed at 65.22% and have played significantly better on third and fourth down than first and second down, which are both metrics that have less predictive value. The Ravens pick up 3rd downs at a 47.37% rate and 4th downs at a 64.71% rate, while allowing 35.16% and 45.71% respectively. 

This is actually an overall improvement over last season, when they picked up 3rd downs at a 48.29% rate and 4th downs at a 60.71% rate, while allowing 38.16% and 33.33% respectively, and they were a much better team overall last season, particularly on offense, before they lost Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda, and Nick Boyle and before the league started figuring out how to defend this offense better. Last year, they were far and away the top team in the league in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but it has been much more of a struggle this season, leading to them ranking 26th. 

The Ravens are much more talented than the 26th best team in the league on paper, as they rank 11th in my roster rankings, but any way you look at it, they’re not nearly as good as they were last season. They’re totally overvalued as 14-point road favorites in Cincinnati, against a Bengals team that has played better on both sides of the ball in recent weeks and has slightly moved out of the league’s cellar, ranking 28th in my roster rankings. The Bengals also will have at least some homefield advantage with fans in the stands.

My calculated line is Baltimore -7, so we’re getting great line value with the Bengals, who are also in a good spot, as teams typically tend to underperform in must win games against sub-500 opponents. Teams with a winning percentage between 50% and 67% cover at just a 40.8% rate as favorites against teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage in weeks 16 or 17. Between that and the line value, there is a lot to like about Cincinnati this week, who should be able to keep this relatively close even if they can’t pull the upset. I’m making this a high confidence pick and even considering it for Pick of the Week, which I will announce Sunday morning.

Update: The Bengals will be my Pick of the Week. This is in part because the Ravens will be without some key questionable players (cornerback Jimmy Smith, edge defender Yannick Ngakoue, center Patrick Mekari, and wide receiver Willie Snead), but also because the other pick I was considering (Washington) saw significant late line movement. Both Cincinnati and Washington are strong picks if you locked in Washington when I did, but Cincinnati will officially be my Pick of the Week.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +14

Confidence: Pick of the Week

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