Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (11-5)
Both of these teams finished at 11-5 and qualified for the post-season, but they also both finished with negative schedule adjusted first down rate differentials, with the Titans ranking 21st at -0.91% and the Ravens ranking 25th at -1.64%. First down rate tends to be one of the most predictive metrics because it minimizes the impact of outlier plays and other metrics that aren’t predictive week-to-week, like turnover margins, missed field goals, narrow victories, return touchdowns, etc.
With the Titans, it’s easy to understand how they finished negative in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, despite their record. The Titans played one of the easiest schedules in the league and still needed to go 7-2 in games decided by one score or less in order to get to 11 wins. The Titans also benefited significantly from turnovers, leading the league with a +11 turnover margin, a very impactful, but largely non-predictive metric. Teams with turnover margin of +10 or better manage just a +0.05 turnover margin per game in the playoffs, so the Titans won’t be able to rely on that again this week.
For the Ravens, the reasons they finished negative despite their record aren’t as immediately apparent as it is with the Titans. The Ravens did benefit from a below average schedule, but they are negative in first down rate differential even before schedule is taken into account (-0.58%) and they led the league with a +165 point differential, despite only having a +4 turnover margin, so they didn’t benefit from winning a high percentage of close games or from consistently winning the turnover battle.
Upon further analysis though, you can see that the Ravens played drastically better on 3rd and 4th down than they did on 1st and 2nd down, allowing them to lead the league in point differential despite a negative overall first down rate differential. The difference in their 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th down performance is enormous and it happens on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Ravens rank just 27th in first down conversion rate on 1st/2nd down, but 3rd on 3rd/4th down, while their defense ranks 28th on 1st/2nd down and 2nd on 3rd/4th down.
3rd and 4th down are more impactful downs, obviously, but how a team performs on 1st and 2nd down is much more predictive week-to-week and, likewise, there is little week-to-week or year-to-year correlation that suggests that teams can consistently exceed their 1st/2nd down performance on 3rd/4th down. In the long run, performance by down tends to even out. The Ravens were also really good on both sides of the ball on 3rd/4th down last season, but the key difference is they were really good on 1st/2nd down as well.
In 2019, the Ravens’ offense ranked 1st in conversion rate on both 1st/2nd down and 3rd/4th down, while their defense ranked 4th on 1st/2nd down and actually “slipped” to 9th on 3rd/4th down. This year, the Ravens have struggled on early downs on both sides of the ball, but have greatly exceeded expectations on 3rd and 4th downs, which is unlikely to continue, especially against tougher competition.
My roster rankings suggest the Ravens are better than their first down rate differential suggests, but even in my roster rankings the Ravens rank just 8th among qualifying playoff teams, so this is clearly not the dominant team they were last season. They have been hurt by expected regression from their defense, their offense being less novel, and the absence of arguably their most important three offensive players in 2019 aside from Lamar Jackson, with right guard Marshal Yanda retiring and left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle getting hurt.
The Titans haven’t been a dominant team overall this season either, but the good news for them is their issues have been primarily concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, which is much less predictable and predictive than offense. The Titans have had one of the best offenses in the league overall, ranking 4th in first down rate over expected at +2.16%, but their defense has been one of the league’s worst, allowing a +3.06% first down rate over expected, 2nd worst in the NFL, which is why they’re negative in schedule adjusted first down rate differential.
If the Titans’ defense be can even a little bit better than they’ve been and their offense can continue playing at the level they’ve played at, the Titans are going to be a tough team for anyone to face and the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance gives the Titans a much higher ceiling than how they’ve played so far this season. The Titans are dealing with injuries upfront with linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Jayon Brown both out for the season, but their secondary got a boost when they acquired slot cornerback Desmond King from the Chargers at the trade deadline and they got a bigger boost when #1 cornerback Adoree Jackson returned from injury a few weeks ago. My roster rankings suggest they’re better on that side of the ball than they’ve performed thus far and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see them be at least somewhat more capable on that side of the ball in the post-season.
The Ravens’ talent level and common sense suggest the Ravens aren’t the 25th best team in the league like they’ve ranked in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but even on a talent basis I have these two teams about even, so we’re getting great line value with the Titans as more than a field goal underdog at home with at least some fans in the stands. In fact, my calculated line has the Titans favored by a field goal. The average bettor likely expects the Ravens’ 3rd and 4th down dominance and the Titans’ defensive woes to both continue, but history suggests that isn’t necessarily going to be the case, so let’s take advantage of that. I love the Titans this week and would make this my Pick of the Week if this was a normal week.
Tennessee Titans 34 Baltimore Ravens 31 Upset Pick +160
Pick against the spread: Tennessee +3.5