Each week during the 2021 NFL season, Sports Info Solutions will highlight the spread of three games including Monday Night Football.
Kansas Chiefs (-2.5) at Las Vegas Raiders
Despite their disappointing loss to the Giants last week and all of the issues that the team has faced, the Raiders’ underlying performance has actually been very good. In fact, besides being tied for the lead in the AFC West with a 5-3 record, they are in the top ten in Total Points per Game on all three units: offense, defense, and special teams.
Offensively, their passing game has made up for the lack of rushing efficiency. Derek Carr has been typically unpredictable with the types of ups and downs that we have come to expect from him. He was excellent, putting up at least 10 Total Points in Weeks 1, 2, 6, and 7, but he had another two starts where he was mediocre, and he cost his team Total Points in two more, against the Chargers and last week against the Giants.
On a week-to-week level, predicting Derek Carr has been a fool’s errand, but overall he has been very good, ranking eighth in Total Points and ninth in Total Points per snap. It will be interesting to see if he can keep that up without Henry Ruggs’s presence to take the top off the defense. Hunter Renfrow has been their more productive receiver, ranking ninth in Receiving Total Points and 6th on a per snap basis, but the small spaces that he likes to operate in might become constricted unless the Raiders can find a way to replace their vertical stretch.
While the Raiders will need to find a way to maintain their offensive success, their defense has been the real surprise this year. They are led by their third-ranked pass rush unit, which promises to pose a problem for the Chiefs’ struggling offensive tackles. Maxx Crosby has starred for Vegas with 38 pressures, 5 sacks, and 2 holding penalties drawn, and Yannick Ngakoue has complemented him with 35 pressures and 6 sacks of his own.
But despite all the compliments bestowed upon the Raiders and all of the “what’s up with Chiefs offense?” columns you read this week, I’m still bullish on the Chiefs. Sure, they have underperformed and the Raiders have overperformed—especially given that Las Vegas is down a head coach and a first round wide receiver—but it seems like a matter of time before Mahomes returns to form and the stress that the Raiders have been under catches up to them.
Add in that the Chiefs defense has quietly been showing signs of improvement and that the September version of all of us would refuse to believe that the Raiders have any chance of stopping Mahomes, and even giving points on the road, Kansas City becomes a very interesting play.
Cleveland Browns (+2.5) at New England Patriots
The Patriots are a classic version of themselves in 2021, built to emulate the way that they played and won their first three Super Bowls in the early 2000s. They have truly leaned into exactly the sort of building approach that Bill Belichick has always loved—more 1950s Navy-style than 2007 with Randy Moss. They play complementary football with the 15th ranked offense and 10th ranked defense by Total Points per game, and they even have a young, efficient, unathletic, risk-averse game manager inspiring Bostonians of all ages to understand that “game manager” is not an insult but a prerequisite for quarterbacking.
In fact, when you dive deeper into the complementary nature of the Patriots, it becomes apparent that they are as balanced a team as there is in the NFL. The SIS Total Points system evaluates offensive and defensive performance in seven different categories: passing, rushing, receiving, blocking, run defense, pass rush, and pass coverage. The Patriots rank between eighth and 23rd in every one of those categories. In a league where more games are lost than won, they are built not to lose.
Unsurprisingly, New England’s best units are blocking, run defense, and pass coverage, much as was the case in the early aughts. Winning up front has always been a large part of Belichick’s desired equation, a part of Belichick’s team-building philosophy dating back at least as far as his 1990s run as head coach of the Browns. There, his stated priorities (as I learned from later working there as a scout) were a Super Bowl level quarterback and dominance on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Unfortunately for Belichick, when he looks across the sideline at those Browns in 2021, he will see a team that is a few years and assets ahead of him in terms of dominance up front. It promises to be a physical matchup, but there is a reason why every member of the Cleveland OL seems to be getting paid before Baker Mayfield.
Cleveland ranks 1st in rushing, sixth in blocking, seventh in run defense, and fourth in pass rush. In a strength-on-strength matchup, Myles Garrett on defense and the interior offensive line on offense give the Browns the advantage, much to Belichick’s chagrin.
Los Angeles Rams (-4) at San Francisco 49ers
The top-heavy nature of the NFC this year is reflected in both the standings and the Total Points leaderboard, where the top three teams are all from that conference. Neck-and-neck for the top two spots are the Cardinals and Buccaneers, with the one-loss Cardinals maintaining the top spot by a hair.
While this all passes the cherished ritual that we call the sniff test, where it starts to get interesting is in the details. Amazingly, the Cardinals are first in the NFL in defense and second on offense, while the Bucs are first on offense and second on defense. All of this makes it seem like there should be a pretty clear gap between the top two teams and the rest of the NFL, but if you thought that, you would be mistaken.
Instead, the all-in Rams are right there behind those top two teams on the strength of their own third-ranked offense and fourth-ranked defense. To put this into a different perspective, the difference between the Rams and the fourth place team is larger than the difference between the fourth and 16th place teams.
Unfortunately, we would have to make our way all the way down to 19th before we find the 49ers on this list, and it’s fair to be concerned that they aren’t a great matchup for the LA offense. While the Niners excel on run defense, they have been mediocre against the pass this season. Meanwhile, despite the Rams creating negative value rushing this year, they figure to focus their game plan on Matthew Stafford’s arm, with or without the availability of new addition Odell Beckham Jr.
Speaking of additions, the Rams defense has a meaningful one of its own. They already have the top defensive tackle and cornerback in the league in terms of Total Points, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, respectively. And now Von Miller has joined the party.
With road teams continuing to outperform home teams in the 2021 NFL season, I’ll side with the stronger team to play up to their ability.