Thursday, November 5, 2009

Week 9 Pick: Ravens -3 @ Bengals

A huge week for BadNFL looms, a week that will determine if the record remains safely above .500 or not. Luckily, there are lots of games that I like this week, none more so than the Ravens -3 (+105) at Cincinnati. Here's why:

1. Both of these teams' records are deceiving.

One of my burgeoning beliefs, one that might help check against unwise bets that leave too much to chance, is to look for a structural explanation for why the public's (and thus the casinos', as they are attempting to mirror the public) expectations for a game are seriously off-base. I suspect that the public has misdiagnosed both of the teams involved in this match-up, thus making it a particularly attractive bet. In short: the Ravens are underrated while the Bengals are overrated.

The Ravens are better than a typical 4-3 team. Some Vegas insiders refer to the concept of "coin flip games," which are games that are decided by the bounce of a ball in the last few minutes. The Ravens have essentially lost 3 of these games, and accordingly, many sharps have them high in their power rankings. In other words, had a few plays turned out differently, the Ravens could very easily be 6-1 or even 7-0. Even more reassuringly, the Ravens have largely dominated in their wins, generating a point differential of nearly double that of the Bengals despite the Bengals' superior record. As such, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings--which accurately predicted the Ravens' blowout of the undefeated Broncos last week--the Ravens are the 3rd strongest team in the league, despite their middling 4-3 record. Advanced NFL Stats' prediction system also has the Ravens ranked higher than the Bengals. But because of the Bengals' solid 5-2 record, and their consequently high placing in most media power rankings, this line is a very manageable three points.

The Bengals are in some sense the inverse of the Ravens; they won a series of big AFC North games on last second drives. At some point, that luck is going to run out, and the Bengals won't be able to pull out the win as time expires. While they were certainly have proved better than expectations, I think the Bengals are now overvalued because of their series of extreme late game wins. In fact, they've played probably the most emotionally exhausting first half of football in the entire league, and I'm not sure they have enough left for the second half. Their one convincing win of late was their 45-10 shellacking of the Bears in week 7. That win is another reason I like the Ravens in this game; I think it said far more about the overrated Bears than it did the Bengals. Just watch the second half of this clip to see the NFL Playbook crew break down the Bears' lack of gap discipline and shoddy all-around play to see why. Also watch this to see a convincing film demonstration of the atrocious state of the Bears' offensive line. The perennially overrated Jay Cutler's best explanation for his inconsistent play is that he can't believe teams are blitzing him! In short, the Bengals win over a fundamentally unsound Bears' team with few good wins of their own does not make me a believer, and I think the Ravens are a superior team.

2. The Ravens came out of their bye playing the type of football that will give the Bengals problems.

Veteran BadNFL readers should hear alarm bells going off right now; after all, wasn't one of the "lessons learned" after the debacle of my week 4 Titans prediction that at some point you are what you are? That point is certainly important to keep in mind, as perhaps all point #1 above proves is that the Ravens are a good team that can't finish games. Particularly since the Bengals beat the Ravens at Baltimore this season! But here's what I'm thinking: while the argument above sets the framework for why I think this bet is undervalued by the market, there are independent reasons to think that the Ravens will match-up quite well against the Bengals this Sunday specifically.

First, Baltimore is a different team than the one that lost to the Bengals a few weeks ago. From all accounts, the 3 consecutive losses the Ravens suffered ate at them during their recent bye week, which they used to resolve a few structural issues with their defense, including, first and foremost, their pass rush. The team that came out against the undefeated Broncos last week was a thoroughly dominant one, with the Ravens playing superbly in all three phases of the game. Most importantly, the Ravens defense looked viciously aggressive again, like it did in 2008.

True, it was only one game, and if the Eagles have showed us anything, it's that teams can demonstrate maddening inconsistency from week to week. But most accounts attribute the Ravens' resurgence to both their anger at having fallen behind in the division and to some bye week mechanical tweaks, two things that should sustain themselves throughout this part of the season. The Ravens--particularly on defense--are the type of team for which an event like the dominating Broncos win can ignite the season. There is certainly precedent: last year the Ravens were similarly 3-3 after 6 weeks and then turned it around to go 11-5. When bouncing back from a similar 3 game losing streak that year, those Ravens reeled off 4 consecutive double-digit wins.

As such, I think the Bengals' win at Baltimore, far from portending a repeat this Sunday, will help the Ravens. This Ravens team knows that it needs to play 60 minutes of consistent football to stay afloat in the tough AFC North, and because of the Cincy win earlier this year, there is zero chance of a trap game this week.

Second, there are significant differences between these teams from the last time they played, differences that that bode well for the Ravens. Perhaps most importantly, the Ravens played soft zones against the Bengals last time around, a mistake that allowed Cedric Benson to run wild, and a mistake that the coaches will certainly not repeat. Indeed, if the defense that showed up at Denver last week shows up this week, the entire character of the game will be different. Moreover, Antwan Odom, the Bengals outstanding RDE, is out for the season, and he was probably the hardest player on that entire defense to replace. Even though he flew under the radar somewhat, he was having a truly dominant season, and the strength of the Odom-led defensive line was a crucial propellant of the Bengals' early divisional success, particularly against the Ravens. Not only that, but the Ravens get their solid starting left tackle, who missed the first Bengals' game, back this week. As most football savants know, particularly those who have read Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, the left tackle is the second most important position in football. Although Michael Oher (coincidentally the subject of Lewis's The Blind Side) performed admirably filling in, now the Ravens are in the enviable position of having excellent depth across the offensive line. One advanced metric puts their offensive line as the best in the league. As such, I think the Ravens will control the trenches this week, something they failed to do last time.

In addition, the Ravens have stiffened against the short-to-intermediate passing attack. Breaking down the film from the Broncos game, it jumped out how thoroughly the Ravens suffocated the short passing game. This is not surprising, as their personnel are well-suited to stifle exactly such types of routes, albeit at the expense of leaving them vulnerable to the explosive play. But Carson Palmer is one of the worst QBs in the league this year on downfield vertical passing attempts. The Bengals have not specialized in explosive plays, preferring the type of clock-eating incremental drives that the Ravens are well-suited to stop. I think those tendencies show up this week.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the extreme and unique emotional circumstances surrounding the Bengals' previous win over the Ravens. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife had just died, and the Bengals' players understandably rallied around their defensive coordinator, playing with obvious inspiration and emotion. I remember watching an interview of Marvin Lewis before the game, when he was obviously struggling with the moment, and I thought that the emotional dynamics were similar to the Saints' first return to the Superdome after Katrina and Brett Favre's legendary performance the night of his father's death. Tom Jackson on ESPN Countdown said the same thing, noting that he was switching his pick to the Bengals on the spot (15 minutes before game time) simply after seeing the obvious gutwrenching emotion of the players and the entire team. The emotion of that day simply cannot be replicated this week, and this time, superior talent wins out.


The Bengals are coming off their bye week, and the claim that you should be wary of betting against teams coming off the bye is ubiquitous in football circles. My first instinct when looking at this game was to worry about the Ravens coming off a win against a good team in comparison to the Bengals coming off their bye. But as explained above, I think the Ravens will be more than ready for this game. And as for the bye? Surprisingly, since the bye was first introduced, teams have only a 52.7% winning percentage in the week after their bye, suggesting an advantage that is quite modest. And the Bengals have actually been one of the very worst teams at exploiting their bye week, putting up a 4-15-1 record in such games. More importantly, Marvin Lewis is only 1-4-1. Experience suggests that the current Bengals team simply does not benefit much from the bye week. And although they're at home, their only 2 losses this year are at home.

As such, I think this game will be closer to the 34-3 pounding the Ravens delivered last year in Cincinnati than it will be to the 3-point spread that the casinos have unwisely established. And because many books, including, have set the payout at +105 on the Ravens -3 right now, it's an even more attractive pick.

Here's hoping that all of the above means that BadNFL is getting back on track this week!

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