Well on the one hand, this has been a terrible week here at BadNFL HQ, as every time I open up my homepage I have to see the indignity of the 4-5 below .500 record. But on the other hand, it's been a strangely exciting week, since I could barely believe my eyes when the lines came out earlier this week. Specifically, I couldn't believe that the undefeated Colts opened as a pick'em against the quite ordinary Baltimore Ravens. I immediately knew that this line was going to be the one that would catapult BadNFL back to .500. Since then, the line has shifted to -1.5, and I still like it. Here's why:
1. The Ravens are overrated.
I've watched the Ravens now 2 weeks in a row, and I've looked at film from a bunch of their early games, and I don't think they're a great football team. True, every report or analysis on the Ravens prefaces its assessment by gushing about how tough the Ravens' defense is, but as Matt Williamson astutely pointed out in his Monday podcast this week, the Ravens no longer have the fearsome defense that they've had in the Ray Lewis era. True, they still allow the 5th fewest points in the league this year, but their schedule pretty much explains why: 2 games against the Browns, 1 against the Chiefs, 1 against the Broncos, and 2 against the Bengals, all of which are well below-average offensive teams. On film, they're really just not that impressive. They're not forcing turnovers at the rate they have in the past, they let Cedric Benson dominate them twice this year (can you see the Ravens of old coming out flat twice against a divisional team in the same year?), and while they showed one flash against the Broncos 3 weeks ago, they've pretty much done nothing else impressive.
I also love that the Ravens are coming off a 16-0 victory over the Browns last week. The Ravens shot up in the power rankings after their win over the Browns, feeding the calls that the Ravens still have a dominating defense. They should have gone down instead; the Ravens played an uneven and unconvincing game, winning more due to the Browns' ineptitude than to Ravens' dominance. Beating the Browns is simply not something at all to be proud about. The Browns sport a historically inept offense, on pace to set the all-time record for fewest points scored in a 16-game season, and Brady Quinn does not look like an NFL-caliber QB. The Browns came out with a pathetic game plan, and played like they have all year: they didn't show up. As such, I think the power rankings, and the oddsmakers, overreacted to that Ravens' win. Remember, this was a tie game at halftime. The same level of performance by the Ravens this week will likely get them blown out. And if it's close, I don't trust the Ravens to pull through; although they've been decent against the spread this year, they have found a way to choke away close games.
2. The Colts match-up well to exploit the Ravens' shortcomings, while the reverse is not true.
I love this Colts team right now. True, they've benefited from some lucky breaks the last couple of weeks, and they barely eeked out a win against the Pats. But this much is obvious: their passing game is dominant. Case in point was last week: although Manning and his non-Wayne WRs looked somewhat out-of-sync for much of the game, they still put up 35 points against a good Patriots team. That, to me, is the sign of a dominant offense, even more so than eyepoppingly good yardage statistics. Even if not everything goes right for the Colts, I have confidence that Manning will find a way to win the game in the 4th quarter. After all, despite struggles with injuries and an anemic running game, the Colts know how to win ugly. They boast the best WR in the NFL, and I think indisputably the best QB, who has come through for BadNFL twice already this year. Their passing attack is (obviously) the key to this game.
The Ravens are ill-suited to stop that attack. Let's face it, this Ravens team is not the team of Chris McAllister and Rod Woodson. Far from it, the Ravens have one of the worst secondaries in the league. In particular, their cornerbacks struggle against above-average WRs. In fact, their glaring problems at cornerback constitute the biggest weakness of their team. That is an absolutely terrible problem to have when playing against Manning and the Colts. Even worse, Terrell Suggs, an irreplaceable part of the Ravens' defense and their only consistent pass rusher, is out for this game. Because of the extra time Manning will have in the pocket, I like the Colts to move the ball pretty easily in this game, leading me to think that Brian Burke's Advanced NFL metrics have it about right when they put the Colts at a 67% win probability; with the Suggs injury, I like the Colts even more than that. In essence, the Ravens struggle with explosive passing offenses, and consequently this miniscule line seems way off.
All of the above is particularly true given the Colts' historical domination of the Ravens. The Ray Lewis-led Ravens have played the Manning-led Colts each of the last 4 years. The results? All Colts wins: 24-7, 15-6, 44-20, and last year 31-3. That's right, last year the Colts beat Joe Flacco's Ravens 31-3, and by all numerical accounts this year's Ravens team is worse while the Colts are better. True, that game was in Indy, but I actually prefer the Colts on the road, as they get a more favorable line, and data shows that this year road teams accordingly cover spreads better than do the home teams. If history shows anything, it's that Manning is quite comfortable against the Ravens' defense.
COUNTER-ARGUMENT: THE COLTS WILL SUFFER A LET-DOWN AFTER THEIR MIRACULOUS COMEBACK AGAINST THE PATS
Not so fast. This Colts team appears to be unique in that they never get too high or too low, and it's more likely that they'll use the Pats win as motivation. While it's true that the atmosphere is likely to be quite intense and hostile in Baltimore, I expect the Colts to come out focused and prepared, looking to shut everyone up about the Belichick 4th down call. Plus, history is comforting on this front: the Colts have beaten the Belichick-led Pats around this time of year (weeks 8-10) 3 separate times since 2005, and they've followed it up with a win the next week all 3 times. And in 2 of those years, the Colts were similarly undefeated in two of those years. In these types of years, the Colts simply don't lose to anyone except the Pats and the Chargers.
Moreover, I think the Ravens are more likely to be unprepared. We all saw how atrociously they played the week after their last dominating defensive performance, and they're coming off a short week, a situation in which they've failed to cover the spread the last 5 times. Finally, in a close game, you have to trust the Colts to eek out the win, since the Ravens' kicking game has been an unmitigated disaster this year.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. wrote up this game for ESPN this week, and he predicted a 31-20 win. That sounds about right to me, and I'm taking the Colts to handily cover.