NFL Picks: Grab the Points at +10 in Ravens vs. Bengals

Sterling Xie

Thursday, December 31, 2015 3:18 PM GMT

The Cincinnati Bengals may be the only team with something to play for in Sunday's clash against the Baltimore Ravens, but that does not mean they are a strong value on the board.

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NFL Pick: Ravens +10

Best Line Offered: at Pinnacle 

 

The Cincinnati Bengals lost a golden opportunity to clinch a first-round bye last week, but the AFC North champs are still strong favorites to finish the regular season on a high note against the Baltimore Ravens.  Cincy is a nine-point favorite as of publication; with an over-under total of 41.5 on the NFL odds board, the Bengals' implied total is just a shade over 25 points.

All that seems a little fishy with a hobbled AJ McCarron leading the Bengals.  While McCarron did well to give Cincinnati a legitimate shot to win at a hostile environment in Denver on Monday night, the Bengals offense also generated just three points on its final nine drives.  When the Broncos altered its man-heavy principles and threw in some zone schemes to make McCarron hesitate, the Bengals offense ground to a firm halt, illustrating the limitations in that offense at the moment.

The Baltimore Ravens have surely seen the tape and understand the need to mix up coverages against McCarron.  Since McCarron has replaced an injured Andy Dalton in the lineup, the Bengals have averaged a meager 20.5 points per game and 4.1 yards per offensive play.  That is well below Cincy's average of 27.8 points per game and 5.9 yards per play when Dalton was fully healthy for the first 13 games of the season.  Quite simply, it's hard to envision why Cincinnati's implied total is so high, raising red flags about the line right away.

Even more alarmingly, the Ravens have been able to consistently cover spreads in the second half of the season, even as injuries have totally depleted a squad widely expected to contend for the Super Bowl in the preseason.  Baltimore has been an underdog in five consecutive games leading up to this week, but possesses a respectable 3-2 record against the spread in those contests, including an outright win as a 10-point dog against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.  Both times the Ravens failed to cover (against the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs) came with Jimmy Clausen under center.  The Bengals won't enjoy the good fortune of facing the retread Clausen, as newly signed quarterback Ryan Mallett keyed the Ravens' upset of the Steelers last week.

If the Bengals are to cover this spread, Cincy will need a much stronger effort from its running game.  The backfield tandem of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard has struggled as defenses have loaded the box to challenge McCarron.  Against the Broncos and San Francisco 49ers the last two weeks, Hill and Bernard have combined to average a woeful 2.4 yards per carry on 60 rushing attempts.  Unfortunately for the Bengals, the Ravens have conceded just 3.9 yards per carry, the seventh-best mark in the league.  In the first meeting between these teams in Week 3, Cincinnati's run game was woeful, averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt and forcing Dalton to toss two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a comeback win.

Baltimore's front seven lost Terrell Suggs to a torn Achilles in Week 1, but has since remained fairly healthy.  The already stout unit figures to force the ball away from Hill and Bernard and challenge McCarron to throw deep in spite of his injured wrist.  Granted, the Ravens' pedestrian secondary can be had, especially with Cincinnati's receiving talent.  Baltimore's defense may have played its best game of the year last week against Ben Roethlisberger and the red-hot Steelers offense, but the back end has generally been vulnerable.  Football Outsiders' DVOA metric ranks the Ravens pass defense 26th, with the lack of depth making Baltimore suspect against secondary receivers.

Still, the McCarron-led Bengals don't appear explosive enough to reach a score which would prompt a bettor to lay the points with his/her NFL picks.  Even with extremely modest over-under totals of 40.5 and 39.5 the past two weeks, the Bengals have failed to reach the over in either contest.  While that speaks favorably about their defense's potential to limit the Ravens' JV offense, it raises serious doubt about the offense's ability to score more than 20 points against a defense which figures to make Cincinnati one-dimensional.

The Bengals are still mathematically alive for a first-round bye, but need an unlikely Broncos home loss to the San Diego Chargers.  Therefore, bettors also face the possibility that Marvin Lewis could rest dinged up starters like Marvin Jones, Carlos Dunlap and George Iloka.  All these factors make the Bengals a risky bet to cover, making the fade the smart play.