The Wild Card Round schedule is set, and Sunday’s slate should be attractive to bettors because of two games in particular. Two of Sunday’s games stand out to me in particular: Baltimore vs. Tennessee and Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh. I will explain why I cannot believe that NFL odds are favoring the Ravens and why I think the Browns will surprise the sundry skeptics.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans
Sunday, January 10, 2020 – 1:05 PM ET at Nissan Stadium
Derrick Henry vs. Baltimore’s Run Defense
Baltimore has routinely proven vulnerable against teams that like to run the ball. Since November, Indianapolis and Tennessee ran for over five YPC against the Raven defense. Likewise, one-dimensional New England accrued 173 rushing yards on 39 attempts and Cleveland ran for 138 yards on 28 attempts.
Indianapolis only scored 10 points because it passed a lot with a lower-quality quarterback who ranks in the bottom half in passer rating. The Patriots, Titans, and Browns all came very close to beating Baltimore -- if they did not beat Baltimore — largely because they succeeded on the ground.
Tennessee has the NFL’s leading rusher in Derrick Henry. He ran for 2,027 yards in the regular season. Henry is a high-volume running back whose physicality makes him difficult to bring down. His smooth cut-back ability helps him achieve a lot of big plays.
When you add in the fourth-best quarterback in terms of passer rating, Ryan Tannehill, then Tennessee’s offense becomes a two-dimensional force. Baltimore’s pass defense ranks sixth in terms of yardage allowed. However, the Ravens’ ranking is helped by the number of low-quality quarterbacks whom they have faced.
Of Baltimore’s last six opposing quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield ranked highest — 15th — in passer rating followed by Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. So Ryan Tannehill will present a strong and sudden upgrade in competition.
The Raven secondary has numerous players on Injured Reserve. This has been a progressively undermanned unit that Tennessee with Tannehill and ascending deep threat AJ Brown have the weaponry to exploit.
I like Tennessee because Baltimore is not built to exploit the Titans’ defensive weakness. Teams like Houston and Green Bay give Tennessee trouble when they have prolific passers like Deshaun Watson, who ranks second in passer rating, and MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers.
Lamar Jackson is a run-first quarterback and not a prolific passer. His preference to run helps explain why he only ranks 22nd in yards, just ahead of New England’s Cam Newton. The metrics attest to Jackson’s lack of quality as a passer.
He ranks #24 in true completion percentage (completion percentage that overlooks drops and unpressured throwaways) and 28th in accuracy rating. In a game where offenses will have plenty of success, Jackson’s inability to keep pace with Tannehill’s passing prowess will keep Baltimore from winning this game.
Why don’t I simply take the over on the betting sites? Both teams love to run the ball and they run the ball well. Baltimore owns a plethora of solid running backs while Tennessee features King Henry. So the clock will be rolling.
Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, January 10, 2020 - 8:15 PM ET at Heinz Field
Pittsburgh seems to be a popular play for two reasons. Last week, Cleveland barely beat a Steeler squad that rested many starters because it already clinched a playoff spot. When the Browns last played Pittsburgh “for real,” Pittsburgh throttled the Browns 38-7.
I think that these two reasons are bad reasons. While the Steelers missed some players, the Browns were also disadvantaged. Besides missing top corner Denzel Ward, the Browns only got to practice twice. They practiced once with the wide receivers. Mentally, Pittsburgh got to play loose because it already made the playoffs while Cleveland had to play tight and under pressure.
The Browns play terribly under the burden of hype and expectation. Their last, terrible season provides proof of this, but now they are being counted out. Regarding the second reason, that game was in October. Cleveland was a different team back then.
Defensively, the Browns did not know how to travel. They repeatedly allowed opposing offenses to surpass their respective scoring average when they hosted the Browns. Also, at that time, quarterback Baker Mayfield was not being used properly.
The Browns made that mistake again in the rematch against the Steelers as part of their rather vanilla game-plan in which they wanted to hide some things from Pittsburgh as much as possible. However, Mayfield’s passer rating was highest — 102.1 — in December because the Browns have had him execute more RPOs, play-actions, and rollouts. When Mayfield does have to stand in his pocket, he’s more often able to hit his first read.
In December, the Steelers averaged 19.2 points per game. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played one good half of football. Opposing defensive backs compelled him to throw deep by sitting on his wide receivers’ shorter routes
The running game was largely non-existent behind Pittsburgh’s run-blocking. While they did play some good defenses, they also struggled even against the Bengals. So it’s no objection to cite Cleveland’s lower-ranked defense.
Brown Offense vs. Steeler Defense
Pittsburgh’s run defense is vulnerable against stronger ground games. The Steelers benefitted from facing a Raven squad without Mark Ingram, JK Dobbins, or Lamar Jackson, although Baltimore still ran for 129 yards on 4.6 YPC.
They struggle to stop teams that want to run the ball. Cincinnati, for example, was run-first without its starting or backup quarterbacks and accrued 152 rushing yards on 41 carries in its win.
Cleveland has a strong running back duo led by Nick Chubb, the seventh-leading rusher, and Kareem Hunt. With an intelligently utilized Mayfield, Cleveland’s offense will do two things well that Pittsburgh’s wont: run and pass the ball.
Tennessee will cover the spread because it enjoys an edge in passing that Baltimore’s defense lacks the quality and health to overcome. Cleveland, too, is worth investing in for its multi-dimensional advantage on offense.
For your NFL Picks, be sure to parlay both underdogs at one of the sportsbooks.