Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Buffalo Bills (14-3)

This line favors the Bills by just 1.5 points in Buffalo, where the Bills will have the benefit of at least having some fans in the stands, suggesting that the odds makers and the public view these two teams about even, perhaps even favoring the lower seeded Ravens slightly. I think this line is mispriced. The Ravens have been great on 3rd and 4th down on both sides of the ball, allowing the 2nd lowest 3rd/4th down conversion rate in the NFL while converting 3rd/4th downs at the league’s 3rd highest rate, which has powered them to a 11-5 record and a second round playoff appearance.

However, the Bills’ offense has been better on both 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th downs, particularly on 1st/2nd down when the Bills rank 2nd in conversion rate and the Ravens rank all the way down at 27th, but the Bills are also better on 3rd/4th down when they rank 1st. Even on defense, which is by far the Bills’ weaker side of the ball, the Bills have the edge on 1st/2nd down, ranking 24th while the Ravens rank just 28th, though the Ravens have obviously been significantly better on 3rd/4th down defensively, ranking 2nd while the Bills rank 12th.

That’s all important to mention because offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance and because performance on 1st/2nd down is much more predictive than performance on 3rd/4th down. The Bills’ offense has had the obvious edge on early downs and they have the overall edge in my roster rankings as well, as their defense has gotten significantly better down the stretch due to better health, particularly with linebacker Matt Milano returning to the lineup in week 13. The Bills should be favored by at least 4.5 points, if not more, in this one, so we’re getting great value with them as mere 1.5-point favorites. This is one of three games I locked in earlier this week, and though the line hasn’t really moved, I’m still happy I locked this in because I like the Bills a lot this week. 

Buffalo Bills 27 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -1.5

Confidence: High

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

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

Confidence: High

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

New York Giants at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

New York Giants (5-9) at Baltimore Ravens (9-5)

The Giants are a tough team to predict. Coming out of their week 11 bye, the Giants looked like they would be a good bet going forward. They were just 3-7, but they had faced a tough schedule to start their season, including 9 out of 10 games against teams that rank in the top-10 in first down rate allowed over expected, the Steelers (2nd), the Rams (1st), Washington twice (3rd), the Eagles twice (10th), the 49ers (6th), the Bears (7th), and the Buccaneers (4th). The Giants were also healthier coming out of the bye than they’ve been most of the season. 

That lasted about a half unfortunately, as the Giants were up 13-10 with the ball in Cincinnati’s red zone early in the 3rd quarter (with the Bengals’ only touchdown coming on a return touchdown), but then quarterback Daniel Jones suffered a hamstring injury and, while they held on to win that game, backup Colt McCoy struggled mightily and nearly blew the game, as the lowly Bengals were a field goal away from winning the game on a late drive in which they ended up fumbling at midfield.

Based off McCoy’s struggles in that game, I stayed away from the Giants when they went to Seattle the following week, but they shocked everyone, winning straight up as 11-point underdogs by final score of 17-12, in a game in which their defense shockingly had a dominant performance to cover for an underwhelming McCoy. The following game against the Cardinals, with Jones back, I bet on the Giants, but Jones looked far from 100% and was arguably a downgrade even from McCoy. Seeing that Jones clearly needed more time to get healthy, the Giants went back to McCoy last week against the Browns, but McCoy struggled mightily in a game in which the Giants had just a 25.93% first down rate against the Browns’ mediocre defense and lost the first down rate battle by 12.17%. 

At this point, it’s clear that a healthy Daniel Jones would be a significant upgrade from McCoy, as he has higher completion percentage, a higher YPA, and better rushing production, despite facing some of the toughest defenses in the league before getting hurt and then playing at far less than 100% against the Cardinals, while McCoy has gotten to face the Bengals (15th in first down rate allowed over expected) for a half, the Seahawks (23rd), and the Browns (29th). The question is how much of an upgrade Jones is at less than 100% or how close to 100% he will be this week. Jones is very reliant on his athleticism as a quarterback, so, while he should be healthier than the last time we saw him, he could easily still be an ineffective quarterback this week.

The Giants’ dominant defensive performance against the Seahawks is a significant outlier when you look at the rest of their season, as they rank 16th in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.42%, so if Jones isn’t healthy, the Giants are one of the worst teams in the league overall. This line is pretty high at Baltimore -10.5, which would give us line value with the Giants if Jones is healthy, but it’s hard to bet them with any confidence without confidence in Jones’ health. I’m still taking the Giants for pick ‘em purposes, especially since the Ravens are in a choke spot, in a must win game to stay in the playoff race (teams with a 50%-65% winning percentage cover at just a 40.9% rate in weeks 16 and 17 against a team with a sub-.500 record), but I wouldn’t recommend betting on it.

Baltimore Ravens 24 New York Giants 16

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +10.5

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12) at Baltimore Ravens (8-5)

The Ravens got a huge win last week in what was arguably the game of the year from an entertainment and high stakes standpoint, but there are still a lot of reasons to be concerned about the Ravens, who have not come close to matching their strong performance on both sides of the ball last season. For one, the Browns are a little bit of an overrated team, winning a lot of close games against a relatively easy schedule and ranking just 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, and yet the Ravens were about even in the first down battle and could have easily lost the game had the Browns not shanked a 39-yard field goal.

The Ravens have been better offensively in recent weeks, but that has coincided with a dropoff from their defense, unsurprising given how the injuries are starting to pile up. Talented cornerback Jimmy Smith is out for this one, while fellow starting cornerback Marcus Peters and stud defensive lineman Calais Campbell are both highly questionable and could be held out of a game that the Ravens should be able to win without them. Even if they do suit up, they could easily be limited and subject to in-game setbacks, particularly Campbell, who has been a shell of his former self in recent weeks while battling through injuries. 

The Ravens’ offense is missing even more key personnel from last year, missing by far their top-2 offensive linemen in Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda (retired), as well as key blocking tight end Nick Boyle. Those three were probably their three best blockers last season, which was such a key to this offense, so, when you add in the fact that the Ravens aren’t catching defenses off guard this season either, it’s not surprising that they had a big drop off from last year’s dominant unit. 

In total, the Ravens rank just 23rd in first down rate over expected, 19th in first down rate allowed over expected, and 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.44%. They’re better on paper, suggesting they’ve underachieved thus far, something that might not continue going forward, but, with all of the key players they’re missing, they rank just 14th in my roster rankings, so anyway you look at it, this is far from the team they were last season when they were one of the league’s best on both sides of the ball.

The Ravens have still gone 8-5, but they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule and they’ve benefited from metrics that are hard to sustain week-to-week, including a 61.90% opponents field goal conversion rate, more than 10% lower than all but one team in the league. Opponents missing field goals is completely out of a team’s control, except for the rare instance where they can get a block, and it’s not hard to see how at least two of the Ravens wins could have been losses if the opponent hadn’t missed makeable field goals, last week’s game against the Browns and a 2-point week 6 win over the Eagles.

The Ravens have an easy opponent this week with the Jaguars coming to town, but I think this line is too high at 13, as the Ravens remain overrated based off of last year’s performance when they weren’t missing key players and when their offense was catching teams off guard. The Jaguars have lost 12 straight since a surprising week 1 win over the Colts, but they don’t usually get blown out, with an average margin of defeat of 10.75 points per game, and they’re also in better hands with quarterback Gardner Minshew back under center rather than backups Mike Glennon and Jake Luton, who have combined to make the last 5 starts. This is also a tough spot for the Ravens, off of an emotional win over the Browns with a relatively tougher game against the Giants on deck. They could easily overlook a Jaguars team that could make this much more of a game than most expect. I like getting the 13 points a lot.

Update: Campbell and Peters are both out, while the Jaguars will get one of their best offensive linemen Andrew Norwell back from injured reserve. This doesn’t change anything, but it’s even more reason to be confident in the Jaguars. The Ravens won’t play their best game this week, missing several key players in a bad spot, and the Jaguars have been competitive enough this season that they should be able to keep it relatively close with this version of the Ravens.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against spread: Jacksonville +13

Confidence: High

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

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

Confidence: High

Dallas Cowboys at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (3-8) at Baltimore Ravens (6-5)

The Ravens kept the final score closer than expected in Pittsburgh against the Steelers last week, even missing basically half of their team due to COVID or injury, losing by final score of 19-14, but they didn’t play nearly as well as that suggests, as the Steelers made key mistakes in all three phases, dropping 6 passes on offense (including 3 in the red zone), muffing a punt on special teams that led to Baltimore’s first touchdown, and blowing a coverage on defense that led to Baltimore’s second touchdown to make the score respectable late. The Ravens didn’t move the ball consistently all game, managing just 10 first downs and losing the first down rate battle by 10.58%. 

The Ravens will get Lamar Jackson back from COVID this week, but the Ravens are still missing key players due to COVID, including top pass catcher Mark Andrews, starting wide receiver Willie Snead, edge defender Matt Judon, and they were an overrated team even before their COVID outbreak. Their offense was not catching teams off guard anymore and the absences of right guard Marshal Yanda (retirement), left tackle Ronnie Stanley (injury), and tight end Nick Boyle (injury) hurt them significantly. 

Missing everyone they’re missing, the Ravens rank just 18th in my roster rankings, so they’re overrated as 7-point favorites at home without any fans in the stadium against the Cowboys. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are a little underrated. Their offense has a lot of problems without quarterback Dak Prescott and their top-3 offensive linemen (Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’El Collins), as well as retired center Travis Frederick, who was a big part of this unit in his final season in 2019, but their defense is a lot healthier and is playing a lot better now than they were earlier in the season. 

Top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (7 games missed), top linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (4 games), and valuable edge rusher Randy Gregory (6 games) have all missed significant time and returned and, despite missing those players for significant time, they still rank a respectable 18th in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.64%. The turnover margin has hurt this team more than anything other than injuries, as they rank 2nd worst in the NFL in turnover margin at -13, but turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so the Cowboys should be better going forward in the turnover battle. 

I have this line calculated at Baltimore -4, giving them just a half point for their minimal homefield advantage, so we’re getting good line value with the Cowboys at +7. Whether or not I decide to bet on the Cowboys depends on the status of a trio of questionable Ravens, cornerback Jimmy Smith, edge defender Jaylon Ferguson, and safety Chuck Clark. All three players did not practice all week, which normally suggests they’re not going to play, but they may have just gotten some extra rest this week, playing on a short week. For now, this is a low confidence pick, but I may decide to bet on the Cowboys depending on the status of the aforementioned players.

Update: It sounds like the aforementioned trio will all play despite not practicing, but they could be less than 100% on a short week and this line has jumped to 8.5 after official word came out that Lamar Jackson would play. I think the Cowboys are worth a bet at that number. I am not that excited about betting on the Cowboys, but the Ravens were overrated even before they started losing key players and they are still missing too much, particularly on offense, to justify being favored by this many points. Dallas’ defense, meanwhile, has been much improved in recent weeks due to predictable regression and improved health.

Baltimore Ravens 22 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: Dallas +8.5

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (6-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0)

I did a double take when I saw this spread was posted at just a touchdown in favor of the Steelers, after the announcement of further COVID absences by the Ravens, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the rescheduling of this game to Tuesday Night. Originally, the Ravens were 4 point underdogs in this game, but somehow the absence of Jackson and others only moved this spread by 3 points. I was strongly considering betting the Steelers at -4 even with Jackson in the lineup, so getting them at just -7 now with backup Robert Griffin in the lineup is a great value.

I have been saying for weeks that the Ravens are overrated as their offense isn’t close to last year’s group. Even before losing their most important offensive player in Lamar Jackson, the Ravens were already down arguably their three most important offensive players from last year in right guard Marshal Yanda (retired), left tackle Ronnie Stanley (broken leg week 8), and tight end Nick Boyle (season ending knee injury week 10). With Jackson at quarterback all season, the Ravens have fallen all the way to 28th in first down rate over expected at -2.40%. Now also missing starting center Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda’s replacement at right guard Patrick Mekari, and two of their top-3 running backs JK Dobbins and Mark Ingram due to positive COVID tests, the Ravens are going to have a very difficult time scoring against the Steelers league best defense.

The Ravens are still solid on defense, ranking 12th in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.56%, but they’re not at 100% on that side of the ball either, with top defensive lineman Calais Campbell out and possibly fellow starting defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Justin Madubuike as well. Campbell hasn’t played since week 9 and this defense hasn’t been the same without him. The Steelers aren’t without their own absences, most notably talented defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt who also tested positive for COVID, but it’s nothing close to what the Ravens are dealing with. My calculated line has the Steelers favored by 10.5 points, even with no fans in the stadium. I love Pittsburgh at 7 and even if you can’t get this line before it likely goes up, the Steelers should still be worth a bet this week, depending on how high it goes.

Update: Hopefully you locked this in when I did. The Ravens have been hit with additional positives and will also be without right tackle DJ Fluker, tight end Mark Andrews, and edge defender Matthew Judon. The Steelers have positives as well, but nothing compared to what the Ravens will be without. This line has shot up to 10 in some places, but I still don’t think that line is high enough, as the Ravens’ skeleton crew is going to have a very tough time being competitive with one of the top teams in the league.

Update: Apparently my sportsbook (betonline . ag) cancelled this bet at 7. I am not sure why this happened because the additional COVID positives since I placed that bet were on both sides and relatively minor and I am not sure when it happened or why I wasn’t notified so I could make another bet at the new number. This is my first year with this book and I’ve had a variety of issues with them that I may go into at a later date depending on how they get resolved. If you weren’t lucky enough to lock this in at 7, this is still worth betting up to 10 (the line is 9.5 in some places), albeit not as much it was at Pittsburgh -7.

Already significantly worse than last season due to the absence of left tackle Ronnie Stanley, right guard Marshal Yanda, and tight end Nick Boyle, the Ravens will play this game without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, starting wide receiver Willie Snead, tight end and top target Mark Andrews, starting center Matt Skura, starting right guard Patrick Mekari, top defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, and edge defenders Matt Judon and Pernell McPhee, along with possibly running backs JK Dobbins and Mark Ingram and right tackle DJ Fluker.

The Steelers aren’t at full strength either with stud defensive end Stephon Tuitt and starting running back James Conner both out and they haven’t blown out a lot of teams (3 wins by double digits), but this should be a 4th double digit win. My calculated line would have been Pittsburgh -6 even before the Ravens’ COVID absences and my new calculated line is Pittsburgh -12, even before taking into account that the Ravens haven’t really practiced, which probably should add 2-3 points to that total. The Steelers should be a safe bet up to 10 as this one shouldn’t be close.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Baltimore Ravens 10

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -9.5

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (6-3) at Baltimore Ravens (6-3)

The Ravens opened as 7-point favorites in New England last week, which immediately stood out to me as too high, but I understood it. The Patriots were just 3-5 and coming off of a near loss to the Jets, while the Ravens were 6-2 and hadn’t been exposed by all of their injury absences. However, after the Ravens lost that game straight up and lost another key player to injury in Nick Boyle, I thought we’d see a significant swing on this line, after it was favoring Baltimore by a touchdown over the Titans a week ago, but the line only shifted down one point to 6. Some of that could be due to the Titans’ losing 34-17 at home to the Colts, but the Colts are a quality team and the Titans led that one in the third quarter before special teams snafus and they finished the game positive in first down rate differential at 3.99%.

The Ravens were #1 offensively pretty much across the board in 2019, but they have fallen all the way to 28th in first down rate over expected this season. My roster rankings suggest they have underachieved compared to their talent level, which means they could easily be better in first down rate going forward, but even my roster rankings have this as a middling offense, as this is simply not the same offense as last year due to personnel losses, so even if they improve, they’ll be a far cry from last season’s team.

Already down stud right guard Marshal Yanda due to retirement, the Ravens lost their other stud offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley back in week 8 and then last week they lost Boyle, who is probably the best run blocking tight end in the league and a huge part of what this run heavy offense does. Boyle is legitimately a sixth offensive lineman as a run blocker, but he’s also reliable enough as a pass catcher to hurt you on play action, which made him such a valuable chess piece for this offense. This offense already hasn’t been catching teams off guard like it did last year and now down probably their best three blockers, it’s going to be so much tougher for this offense to execute the way they want to. I wouldn’t expect them to be more than a middling offense at best going forward.

The Ravens’ defensive play has remained above average, ranking 10th in first down rate allowed over expected, after ranking 7th last season, but this isn’t quite the same unit right now that they’ve had for most of the season. Cornerback Jimmy Smith may return from a 1-game absence this week, but they’ll be without starting defensive lineman Brandon Williams and, more importantly, top defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who was sorely missed against New England and will miss his second straight game this week. Defense is less predictable on a week-to-week basis than offense to begin with, but with the Ravens missing key players, it could be tough for them to avoid a regression on defense. 

The Ravens aren’t a bad team, but they’re not the kind of team that should be laying significant points against a capable opponent like the Patriots and, even more so, like their opponents this week in the Tennessee Titans. If the Ravens being favored by a touchdown against the Patriots was too much, then them being favored by 6 points against the Titans is way too much. This game is in Baltimore rather than New England, but with neither stadium allowing fans that barely matters.

The Titans have just a +14 point differential on the season, are 6-3 on the strength of a 4-1 record in games decided by one score, and rank just 19th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but the good news is their offense has played very well, which is the more consistent side of the ball, while their defense has struggled. The Titans rank 5th in first down rate over expected at 2.48%, but just 29th in first down rate allowed over expected at 2.58%. If their defense can be even somewhat improved going forward and their offense continues to play at a high level, this is a team that could be very tough for anyone to play, like they were down the stretch last season.

I liked the Titans more earlier in the week, before their injury reports, as they will be without key players on both sides of the ball. Left tackle Taylor Lewan (5th game missed) is out for the season, but top cornerback Adoree Jackson had a shot to make his season debut this week, while edge defender Jadeveon Clowney (2nd game missed), slot receiver Adam Humphries (4th game missed), left guard Rodger Saffold (1st game missed), and possibly center Ben Jones (would be his first game missed) will be out as well. 

Even with those key players missing though, I still have the Titans slightly ahead in my roster rankings, so getting a full six points with them is a great value, especially with the Ravens being in a tough spot with another tough game against the Steelers on Thursday Night Football on deck. Favorites of a field goal or more cover at just a 43% rate all-time, which will make things even tougher for the Ravens this week. My calculated line is even, so even with the Titans’ injury situation, I like them enough to be my Pick of the Week.

Update: It doesn’t change anything since the Titans are already my Pick of the Week, but it’s good to know that Tennessee will have Ben Jones available for this one.

Tennessee Titans 24 Baltimore Ravens 23 Upset Pick +235

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +6

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (6-2) at New England Patriots (3-5)

The Patriots have gone just 3-5 in their first season without Tom Brady, at one point losing four straight games for the first time since 2002 and only snapping that losing streak by squeaking out a field goal win over the Jets last week. Things haven’t been quite as bad as they sound though. The Patriots have lost a lot of close games, going 1-3 in games decided by one score or less and, if you exclude a game in which they were within a score of the Chiefs with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter despite starting a backup quarterback, the Patriots are 2-1 on the season in games decided by more than a touchdown. The Patriots have also faced an above average schedule and, when adjusted for schedule, have a -0.92% first down rate differential that is only slightly below average. 

Even better, the Patriots’ issues have primarily been on the defensive side of the ball this season, as they rank 10th in first down rate over expected at +1.25%, but just 23rd in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.17%. The defensive side of the ball tends to be the much more inconsistent side of the ball and the Patriots’ offense, while not being the passing game we’re used to from them, is still pretty effective at moving the chains, especially on the ground, and has one of the best offensive lines in the league. 

As bad as their near loss to the Jets was, the Patriots actually exceeded expectations on offense with a 39.47% first down rate against a Jets defense that isn’t hapless, ranking 20th in first down rate allowed over expected. The problem was their defense surrendered a 40.91% first down rate to an offense that had been anemic all season, but defensive issues are easier to fix week-to-week and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is one of the best of all-time at defensive adjustments. It’s also very possible the Patriots got caught looking forward, facing a last place Jets team before this Sunday Night Football game against Baltimore. I would expect a better effort this week.

The Patriots’ schedule gets harder this week as the Ravens are obviously a much tougher opponent than the Jets, but not as much as you might think. This once dominant Ravens offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -1.86% and, while they are better than that on paper, they are also missing their top-2 offensive linemen from last season in Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley and, with defenses catching on to how to defend this offense, it looks less and less likely that the Ravens will consistently find their 2019 form again this season. 

The Ravens have still played well defensively this season, ranking 9th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.94%, but defensive play is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and the Ravens are missing a pair of key players this week with defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Jimmy Smith sidelined. Given all that the Ravens are missing, this line is too high at a touchdown.

I’m going to bet the Patriots at least a little bit at +7, but unfortunately the Patriots have listed 17 players questionable this week, including cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, who missed last week’s game against the Jets and may be needed if this defense is going to bounce back, so I’m leaving this as a small bet until we get more clarity before gametime. This could easily end up being a higher confidence pick though, depending on injuries.

Baltimore Ravens 27 New England Patriots 24

Pick against the spread: New England +7

Confidence: Medium