Each week during the 2021 NFL season, Sports Info Solutions will highlight the spread of three games including Monday Night Football.
Green Bay Packers at Cincinnati Bengals
Bengals fans are riding high following a 3-1 start for a team that many, myself included, panned as mediocre. Cincinnati now faces its toughest challenge of the season on paper, but the Packers are pretty beat up. Jaire Alexander ranked second in the NFL in Coverage Points Saved in 2020 and is nursing a shoulder injury; their 2020 leaders in Pass Blocking Points Earned, Elgton Jenkins and David Bakhtiari, are doubtful and out, respectively; and their best pass rusher, Za’Darius Smith, is likely out for the season.
Green Bay’s defense has ranked 4th in yards per pass attempt allowed (6.5) but the absence of Jaire Alexander certainly hurts. Kevin King is also nursing a concussion, so the Packers may be fielding Isaac Yiadom and rookie Eric Stokes at their outside corner spots on Sunday. This would be a boon for Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, who currently ranks 30th in Total Points Earned/Route among players with 10+ targets.
Burrow and the Bengals passing attack certainly hope to avoid some of the disastrous plays that they’ve endured through four games. Burrow’s bust rate (the percentage of plays losing at least one EPA) of 22.2% is the third-highest among 29 passers with 100+ attempts. This can be attributed, in part, to the third- and fourth-highest interception (3.7%) and sack (8.5%) rates in the NFL. However, he’s managed to offset those negative plays with a boom rate (the percentage of plays gaining at least one EPA) of 27.4% and a touchdown rate of 8.3%, both second-best in the league among the same pool of players. This game is an opportunity for Burrow to hit more of those big plays and avoid the negative ones.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas Chiefs
Sunday’s rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game figures to be yet another high-scoring affair, as BetMGM has it figured at the highest points total (56.5) of the Week 5 slate. Josh Allen and the Bills are certainly looking to avenge their 38-24 exit in January, and they’ve been on a roll since their Week 1 loss to the hapless Steelers, scoring 35+ points in their last three contests, two of which were shutouts.
Although it’s still early, Patrick Mahomes is in rarefied air this season. 48% of his dropbacks and rushes have gone for a first down, easily the highest mark since Matt Ryan’s 2016 MVP campaign (44%) and well above the NFL average for quarterbacks during that span (34%).
Meanwhile, his counterpart this week has regressed somewhat from his ascendant 2020 campaign. Allen’s on-target rate has dropped from 80.5% in 2020 to 73.5% through four weeks. His bust rate is also up year-over-year: 17.4% of his dropbacks result in a loss of at least one EPA, a mark that ranks eighth-worst among 29 quarterbacks with 100+ attempts. Last season, he had the fourth-best rate at 12.4%. Similarly, his positive play rate is down from 58.9% (second/44) in 2020 to 52.2% (14th/29) this year.
That said, the difference in quarterback talent might be offset by the quality of their respective defenses. Whereas the Chiefs’ passing defense currently ranks last in EPA/play allowed (0.19), the Bills comfortably lead the league at -0.4 EPA/play — more than double the next-best team. Of course, that has a lot to do with the quality of the quarterbacks they’ve faced—Davis Mills, Taylor Heinicke, Jacoby Brissett, and the husk of Ben Roethlisberger aren’t exactly a murderer’s row—but Buffalo was a top 10 passing defense last year by EPA/play.
The Bills are also pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 50% of their dropbacks this year, the third-highest mark in the league. The Chiefs have held up well in pass protection so far, but the Bills front will represent a challenge for a relatively inexperienced line that is starting two rookies and a second-year player alongside Orlando Brown and Joe Thuney.
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens
While the Ravens are sitting at a comfortable 3-1 despite facing one of the league’s stronger schedules so far, the Colts find themselves in dire straits. Indianapolis certainly had playoff aspirations heading into a down year for the AFC South, but they find themselves at 1-3 heading into yet another tough matchup. To add insult to injury, they’re at risk of conceding their first-round pick to the Eagles should Carson Wentz fulfill the playing time condition of their offseason trade.
This dilemma is worsened by the fact that Wentz hasn’t been outright bad this year. His interception rate of 0.7% is the lowest mark of his career, and his bust rate of 14.2% is his best since his rookie year. Put more simply, he’s putting the ball in harm’s way less, but he continues to miss on a lot of throws. While his on-target rate of 72% is slightly up from last year, he still ranks sixth-worst in the league in this category. That’s in spite of the fact that his average depth of target (ADOT) of 6.6 is way down, the second-lowest in the league. Wentz’s newfound restraint is a double-edged sword, though; his boom rate of 18.9% is his lowest in years. All this to say: the Colts are both limited to and limited by Wentz.
The Ravens have no such problem. Lamar Jackson ranks third in the league in Passing Points Earned/Play (0.25), just behind Matthew Stafford and Patrick Mahomes. He also ranks fourth in Rushing Points Earned/Play (0.17) among ball carriers with 20+ carries. Once again, Jackson is playing at an MVP level and refuting skeptics who doubt his status as a legitimate dual-threat. He’s done all this without rookie first-round receiver Rashod Bateman, who could make his NFL debut on Monday night.