Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

The Titans looked in the middle of a lost season when they started 2-4, bottoming out with a shutout loss in Denver week 6. That loss ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, as that was the performance they needed to pull the trigger on the switch from former #2 overall pick Marcus Mariota to veteran off-season acquisition Ryan Tannehill under center. Since making that move, the Titans rank 4th among playoff qualifiers with a +4.47% first down rate differential.

Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.43% first down rate over Tannehill’s 11 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries to key players like defensive linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (2 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (7 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (7 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). Tannehill and the offense have carried this team, picking up first downs at a 41.90% rate in Tannehill’s 11 starts, only behind the Ravens over that stretch, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season. Tannehill also finished the regular season as the league leader in QB rating. 

The switch to Tannehill took this team from seemingly dead in the water at 2-4 to not only qualifying for the post-season at 9-7, after winning 7 of their final 10 regular season games, but also winning a playoff game last week in New England against the Patriots. Tannehill didn’t do much in a game in which the Titans called 40 run plays to 17 pass plays to attack a Patriots defense that is significantly better against air attacks than ground attacks, but this offense is much more than just Tannehill, as they have a strong offensive line, a great feature back in Derrick Henry, and a downfield #1 receiver in AJ Brown. They’re multi-dimensional and can have offensive success in different ways.

This should be where the Titans’ season ends though and they could really struggle in this game in Baltimore, for several reasons. For one, Tannehill probably won’t be quite as good as he’s been going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league. Tannehill won’t necessarily struggle going forward, but if he’s not the quarterback that led the NFL in QB rating going forward, that will have a noticeable effect on a team that has been so reliant on their offense in recent weeks with their defense struggling.

Speaking of that defense, the Titans still have a lot of injury concerns on that side of the ball. Even with starting cornerback Malcolm Butler and key edge rusher Cameron Wake out for the season, things appeared to be looking up last week when they got top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence, but they lost top linebacker Jayon Brown with an injury in the first minute of their win in New England, which is a huge absence, as Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked off linebacker during the regular season.

The Patriots, who have been stagnant on offense for months and couldn’t take it to another level in the post-season, were unable to exploit Brown’s absence in any significant way, but the Ravens should have a much easier time. In fact, given the way the Ravens run their offense, Brown is probably the worst possible player the Titans could be missing on defense for this matchup. Brown not only is the one Titans linebacker with the speed to contain Lamar Jackson in the open field, but he’s also easily their best coverage linebacker, a big absence against a team that relies heavily on tight ends in the passing game.

Even if Brown was playing, the Titans would have a tough time slowing down a Ravens offense that not only lead the league with a 41.73% first down rate, but that has actually been even better than that over the past few months, as Jackson and company have gotten more comfortable in the scheme. Over their past 10 games since week 7, the Ravens have a 42.47% first down rate, despite resting their key players in a meaningless week 17 game against the Steelers. The Ravens have won 12 straight games overall, but have been especially dominant over their past 10 games, covering in all but one game and winning by an average of 20.5 points per game, including an 18-point week 17 win with backups against a capable Steelers team.

That impressive stretch isn’t just because of the offense either, as their defense has allowed just a 30.00% first down rate over those 10 games and ranks 1st among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed over that stretch. That’s in comparison to a 37.95% first down rate that ranked 24th in the NFL over the first 6 games of the season. It’s easy to point to the acquisition of cornerback Marcus Peters between week 6 and week 7 as the reason for their drastic improvement and certainly he has been a big part of the reason, but the Ravens also added key linebacker Josh Bynes between week 4 and week 5 and have gotten significantly better play at safety since Tony Jefferson got hurt and was replaced with breakout player Chuck Clark. With an elite offense and defense, the Ravens are obvious Super Bowl favorites and I don’t expect this game to be close. There’s not quite enough here to bet the Ravens with confidence as 9.5-point favorites, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 31 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -9.5

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) at Baltimore Ravens (13-2)

The Ravens’ season got off to an unspectacular start, as they were just 2-2 through 4 games, including a blowout week 4 loss against the Browns, but they have won 11 straight games since then and have the #1 seed in the AFC already locked up before week 17, allowing them to rest key players in a game that is meaningless for them. For the Steelers, this game is the opposite, as they are one of three teams still alive for the 2nd wild card spot in the AFC. Losing this game won’t eliminate the Steelers, as they can still make the post-season if the Titans and Raiders lose and the Colts win, and winning this game won’t guarantee them a post-season spot, as the Titans would hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers if both teams win, but the Steelers’ path to the post-season is certainly easier with a win. 

The common logic seems to be that because the Steelers need this game and the Ravens don’t that the Steelers will be able to prevail and, as a result, they are favored by 2 points on the road in Baltimore. It’s difficult to come up with a calculated line for a game in which one side will be playing several unproven backups, but I have this line calculated at Baltimore -1.5. For this line to be accurate at Pittsburgh -2, the Ravens would have to rank around 27th or 28th in my roster rankings and even at far less than 100% I don’t think they are that bad. They can’t rest everyone and this is a deep roster with great schemes on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers obviously have the edge on defense, as they have one of the top stop units in the NFL, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.64%, but Baltimore’s offense is still better than the Steelers offense even with backups in the lineup. As good as the Steelers defense is, their offense is equally bad, maybe even more so. They rank 30th in the NFL in first down rate at 31.42% and are starting overmatched undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges at quarterback. 

Baltimore backup quarterback Robert Griffin is far more experienced and proven at the NFL level, even if he is just a backup caliber talent. I’m not expecting Griffin to suddenly become the quarterback he was when he won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 over Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, but I’m excited to see how he performs in extended action in a scheme that actually fits his abilities and what we’ve seen from him in limited action and the pre-season has been promising. I don’t want to bet on the Ravens because of the uncertainty over how some of their backups will perform, but they should be the right side in this one.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +2

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-2) at Cleveland Browns (6-8)

When these two division rivals met back in week 4, the Browns won somewhat easily by a final score of 40-25, resulting in both teams being 2-2 after 4 games. At the time, it looked like a sign of things to come, as the Browns were the pre-season favorite to win the division. However, while the Browns have fallen to 6-8 and out of the playoff race entirely, the Ravens haven’t lost since that first matchup against the Browns way back in week 4.

I would expect this matchup to be much more similar to how these teams have played in the past 10 games than how they played in week 4. While the Browns rank just 23rd in first down rate differential on the season at -2.31% and are the without talented defensive end duo of Myles Garrett (suspension) and Olivier Vernon (injury), the Ravens have completely reinvented their defense since the start of the season and are the most complete team in football. They have added cornerback Marcus Peters and middle linebacker Josh Bynes, have gotten breakout play from edge defender Tyus Bowser and safety Chuck Clark, and have gotten cornerback Jimmy Smith back from injury.

Peters was their most important addition and since adding him in week 7, the Ravens rank 2nd in first down rate allowed at 30.18%, after ranking 24th in first down rate differential through the first 6 games of the season at 37.95%. Lamar Jackson and this offense gets by far the most attention on this team, but they’ve been a dominant unit the whole season, ranking 5th in first down rate through the first 6 games of the season at 40.68% and 1st in the past 8 games at 43.30%. The defensive improvement is the reason why this team now looks unbeatable. Since week 7, the Ravens have a ridiculous +13.11% first down rate differential, which is best in the NFL by a wide margin (the second ranked team is at +5.32%).

With the Ravens playing as well as they are and the Browns treading water at best, I have this line calculated at Baltimore -11. The Browns have recognizable stars on both sides of the ball, but are a top heavy roster with poor depth, so they might still be a little overrated, even with the way their season has gone. Some think that their previous victory over the Ravens is proof that they are the Ravens’ Achilles heel, but these are not the same teams as the last time and history suggests the Ravens actually have a better chance of covering this spread because they lost the previous matchup. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 39-27 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s not enough here to for the Ravens to be worth betting, but I like them for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 33 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -10

Confidence: Low

New York Jets at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

New York Jets (5-8) at Baltimore Ravens (11-2)

The Ravens were 4-2 through the first 6 weeks of the season, but they had just one win by more than a touchdown, despite playing a trio of teams that currently have three wins or fewer (Miami, Arizona, Cincinnati). Since then, however, they have won all 7 games, despite only playing one losing team during that stretch, and 5 of those wins have come by more than a touchdown. They also have a first down rate of +11.79% over that stretch, easily the best in the NFL (2nd best over that stretch is +6.71%). 

Lamar Jackson and this offense get a lot of attention, but they ranked 5th in first down rate through those first 6 games at 40.68% and have actually only been marginally better in their past 7 games at 42.49%, 2nd in the NFL during that stretch. The big difference has been the defense, which went from 24th in the NFL through the first 6 games of the season at 37.95% to 3rd over the past 7 games at 30.70%. The addition of cornerback Marcus Peters, acquired between week 6 and week 7, is a big part of the reason why, but the Ravens have also gotten great play from mid-season signing Josh Bynes, they’ve gotten cornerback Jimmy Smith back from injury, and they’ve gotten breakout performances from safety Chuck Clark and edge defender Tyus Bowser. With strong play on both sides of the ball, this is arguably the most complete team in the NFL.

The Jets have also been better since week 7, ranking 13th in the NFL in first down rate differential over that stretch at +1.40%, but they remarkably haven’t faced a single team during that stretch that ranks better than 25th in first down rate differential on the season and they’re just 4-3 during that stretch, so they haven’t stood out as significantly better than the bottom of the league teams they’ve faced. Overall, the Jets have had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season at 38% (2nd easiest is 42%) and they still rank 24th in the NFL on the season in first down rate differential at -2.85%. Part of that is because quarterback Sam Darnold missed time early in the year, but even with him healthy this miserable offense ranks just 27th in first down rate since week 7, despite a pathetic schedule.

The Jets’ last game against a challenging opponent was their embarrassing week 6 home shutout loss to the Patriots. The Ravens, who handled the Patriots pretty easily, shouldn’t have much trouble with the Jets, especially at home on a short week. It’s very tough for an inferior team to travel on a short week and face a superior team, especially if it’s an unfamiliar non-divisional opponent. Over the past 30 years, when both teams are on short rest on a Thursday night, non-divisional home favorites are 36-18 ATS, including 10-2 ATS as double digit favorites.

I wish the Ravens were coming into this game healthier, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley out and quarterback Lamar Jackson and his #1 receiving option Mark Andrews both dealing with injuries that could limit them or knock them out of the game on a short week, but the Jets aren’t in a good injury situation either, with talented rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, starting tight end Ryan Griffin, talented cornerback Brian Poole, and Pro-Bowl safety Jamal Adams all expected out for this one and we’re still getting line value with the Ravens (my calculated line is -17.5) in a good spot. This is just a small bet, but barring Jackson being knocked out of the game early, I can’t imagine this game being close.

Baltimore Ravens 31 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -15.5

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-2) at Buffalo Bills (9-3)

The Bills got a statement win on Thanksgiving in Dallas, but that wasn’t as impressive as it seemed, so the Bills are a little overrated right now. Not only have the Cowboys since been beaten rather easily by the Bears, but, while the Bills won that game by 11, they lost the first down rate battle by 7.54%. The Cowboys picked up 32 first downs in the game and got into Buffalo territory on 8 of 10 drives, but managed just 15 points because they missed a pair of field goals, turned it over twice, and got stopped on 4th down twice late in the game when they were forced to go for it. 

The Bills have a first down rate differential of +3.44% on the season, 6th in the NFL, but they’ve faced the easiest schedule in the NFL by far, with their opponents having a combined winning percentage of 38%. No one else has faced a schedule easier than 42%. Aside from last week, their only win over a team with more than 4 wins came against the Titans by 7 in a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals. Excluding the Cowboys and Titans, the Bills have 7 wins against teams that are a combined 20-64.

The Bills’ schedule gets much tougher this week, as they host the Baltimore Ravens, arguably the top team in the league right now. The Ravens beat another top team candidate last week, the San Francisco 49ers, but this line still shifted from Baltimore -7 on the early line last week to Baltimore -6 this week, as a result of Buffalo’s win over Dallas. About 10% of games are decided by exactly a field goal, so that’s a significant one-point shift. 

I was hoping for an even better line with Baltimore, but I like the Ravens a good amount this week. They’ve blown their competition out of the water for about two months, ranking 1st in first down rate differential since week 7 at +11.83% (no one else is higher than +5.65%), despite facing teams that are 7-5 or better in 5 of 6 games. The Ravens got off to a relatively slow start, but still rank 2nd in first down rate differential on the season at +7.28%. The Bills, meanwhile, are going in the opposite direction, with just a +0.02% first down rate since week 7, 18th in the NFL over that time period, despite facing opponents with a combined 29-56 record. Everyone knows the Ravens are good so it’s hard to get value with them, but we’re getting some this week (Baltimore -8.5 is my calculated line) because the Bills are overrated, so the Ravens are worth betting this week. 

Baltimore Ravens 27 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -6

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (10-1) at Baltimore Ravens (9-2)

The Ravens are on some kind of a run right now, winning 5 straight games by at least 14 points or more, becoming just the 6th team to do so in the past 30 years (1993 49ers, 1999 Rams, 2005 Colts, 2007 Patriots, 2009 Saints). Over that stretch, they lead the NFL in first down rate differential by a mile, with a +13.31% rate that dwarfs the second ranked 49ers +7.22% rate. The Ravens aren’t doing this against a cupcake schedule either, with 4 of their last 5 opponents currently having winning records.

What makes evaluating the Ravens tough is how deciding how much value should be put into some of their underwhelming early season performances. Prior to their current stretch, the Ravens lost games against the Browns and Chiefs that they never had a real chance to win and they won by less than a touchdown against a pair of last place teams in the Cardinals and Bengals. They had just a +2.73% first down rate differential through week 6, despite a relatively easy schedule. Their only win by more than 6 points during that stretch came week 1 against a hapless Dolphins team. 

If we include their earlier season performance into the equation, it’s hard to argue that the Ravens should be favored by 6 points over a 49ers team that would be undefeated right now if they hadn’t missed a makeable field goal in overtime against the Seahawks, but it’s very possible a switch flipped for this team after week 6 with Lamar Jackson growing more comfortable in this offense every week. If we more or less ignore how the Ravens played prior to their current 5-game run, then this line is certainly understandable, even with the 49ers leading the NFL with a +9.02% first down rate on the season. I typically don’t like to throw out early season results and only focus on a shorter stretch, especially since doing so in this case would mean throwing out 6 games to focus on 5, so I’m taking the 49ers for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no intention of betting on this.

Baltimore Ravens 24 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +6

Confidence: None

Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (8-2) at Los Angeles Rams (6-4)

The Ravens are the hottest team in the NFL right now, having won four straight games by 14+ points, making them the 24th team to do so in the past 30 years. The common thinking is that makes them a great bet, but in reality it’s much more likely to be the opposite. Of the previous 23 teams to do so, just 7 of them covered in their next game and 11 of them lost straight up, including 8 upset losses. Favorites are just 3-14 ATS in this spot in the past 30 years. Ironically, the last team to win four straight games by 14+ were the Patriots, who lost in this spot to the Ravens a few weeks ago. 

The problem is when a team is as hot as the Ravens are right now, oddsmakers know they can boost their spread significantly and casual bettors will still want to bet on them.That’s definitely the case here, as the Ravens are 3.5 point favorites on the road against the Rams. A week ago on the early line, this line was even, a drastic shift considering about 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer, and 2-3 weeks ago the Rams likely would have been favored by a field goal here at home. 

With the Rams, a lot of attention has been given to their underwhelming offense, which has fallen from 3rd in first down rate at 43.02% in 2018 to 18th in 2019 at 35.09%, due primarily to major issues on the offensive line, but their defense has quietly been one of the better stop units in the league this season, allowing a first down rate of 32.34% that is 4th best in the NFL. They’re not as good overall as last season, but they still rank 7th in first down rate differential at +2.75%, just a few spots behind the Ravens, who rank 3rd at +6.23%. I have this line calculated at Baltimore -1.5 and, while two points of line value might not seem like much, about 20% of games are decided by 2 or 3 points, so that’s a pretty significant two points. 

The Rams are also in a couple good betting spots this week. For one, they’re a west coast team in a night game against an east coast team, a spot that covers about 66% of the time due to differences in internal clocks. On top of that, the Rams only have a trip to Arizona on deck, while the Ravens have another tough game on deck against the 49ers. The Ravens are expected to be favored in that game, but there could still be a little bit of split focus for them this week with the league’s best team by record on deck next week. Meanwhile, home underdogs like the Rams are 25-53 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites, which they almost definitely will be in Arizona. I like the Rams’ chances of not just covering this spread, but winning this game straight up, so they’re one of my top picks of the week at +3.5 (and still betable at +3).

Los Angeles Rams 26 Baltimore Ravens 24 Upset Pick +145

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +3.5

Confidence: High