Each week during the 2021 NFL season, Sports Info Solutions will highlight the spread of three games including Monday Night Football.
Los Angeles Chargers (+2.5) @ Baltimore Ravens:
Two of the smartest-run organizations in the NFL will go head-to-head in an October matchup that is likely to have postseason seeding implications. Both of these teams bring AFC-leading 4-1 records (along with the Bills), aggressive fourth-down decision-making, and young quarterbacks with outrageous physical ability. In a sophomore campaign that picked up exactly where he left off last season, Justin Herbert comes into the game tied for third in the NFL in Total Points (SIS’s metric that apportions EPA among the 22 players on the field). Meanwhile, he’ll face off with Lamar Jackson, who leads the NFL in Total Points (and won MVP in his own sophomore season).
Arguably the most interesting matchup of the game will come when the Ravens have the ball. As NFL observers know, Baltimore is built to pound and is perennially one of the top rushing teams in the league, with an attack that revolves around Lamar Jackson’s strength as a runner. The Ravens figure to attack the Chargers in the one area that they have shown weakness this year, their run defense, which is 30th in the NFL Total Points.
That said, LA has reason for optimism. With their decimated backfield, the Ravens are just 12th in rushing EPA and 10th in EPA per attempt so far this year, so their rush offense hasn’t been as good as it was in the past. It will also be interesting to see if the Chargers go back to some mutation of the 7DB package that their previous staff used against the Ravens in the playoffs a few seasons ago.
On the other side of the ball, it’s Herbert who has a great matchup against a struggling Baltimore secondary. Marcus Peters went down along with the Ravens running backs before the season, and through five games Baltimore ranks just 28th in the NFL in Pass Coverage Total Points. This isn’t the same secondary that we have become accustomed to seeing.
In a game where we can expect both teams to go for fourth downs on all areas of the field, this matchup should be fun to watch. The Ravens haven’t been as good as their record so far this year, ranking just 14th in Total Points overall. It’s an attractive matchup to consider taking Justin Herbert plus the points.
Arizona Cardinals @ Cleveland Browns (-3):
The lone undefeated team in the NFL, Kyler Murray’s Arizona Cardinals, are underdogs on the road against a 3-2 Cleveland team that lost last week in a shootout with the aforementioned Los Angeles Chargers. An undefeated underdog might seem surprising, but there are a bunch of matchups that tilt in the Browns’ favor that might explain it.
In a league where home-field advantage seems to have vanished, the Browns are 2-0 at home and 1-2 on the road. While the Cardinals haven’t struggled on the road yet this year, Kliff Kingsbury’s brand of offensive football is best suited for the perfect weather that he is accustomed to at home. Cleveland’s weather forecast will be worth keeping an eye on as it could be rainy and/or windy on Sunday afternoon, and just as baseball teams are known to build their rosters around the details of their home parks, Paul DePodesta’s Browns are built to perform best when the weather is especially Clevelandish.
Along with the potential for weather, another factor that promises to limit the effectiveness of each team’s passing game is the opponent’s pass rush. The Cardinals are No. 1 and the Browns are No. 2 in Pass Rush Total Points so far this year, so the defensive fronts will be something to keep your eyes on.
Expect both teams to try to control the opposing pass rush by running the football. The Cardinals have been a good run team this year, ranking 11th in Rushing and 10th in Blocking Total Points, but the Browns have been up to task ranking ninth in Run Defense Total Points.
The most troublesome matchup for Arizona is on run defense, where it ranks 19th in Total Points and has to contend with the Browns, who are first in both Rushing and Blocking Total Points.
Despite their excellence, the Cardinals will have to contend with a team that is built to make things very difficult for them, especially if the weather breaks in their favor. If the forecast changes, expect this line to move because projection systems will take this into account.
Buffalo Bills (-5.5) @ Tennessee Titans (MNF):
I’m not sure what would be more surprising here between the Titans beating the Bills or the Titans finishing the weekend with just a one-game AFC South lead over the currently 1-4 Texans or Colts, who play each other on Sunday.
Actually, I do know which would be more surprising, and (barring a Texans-Colts tie to destroy the premise) it would be the Titans finding a way to beat the Bills, the team with a four-game winning streak and the best point differential in the NFL.
The Bills have scored 172 points and allowed just 64 (including two shutouts) for a point differential of +108. The next best point differential in the AFC is the Browns at +28. That 80-point difference is the same as the gap between the Chargers (+26) and the Jets (-54). The Titans, meanwhile, have scored 132 points and allowed 130 for a differential of +2, just 106 points off the Bills pace.
Unfortunate sidenote: the people of London get the pleasure of seeing the NFL’s two worst point differentials in the Toilet Bowl Loo on Sunday between the Dolphins (-75) and Jaguars (-59).
The advanced stats tell a similar story, as the Bills are third in the NFL in Total Points, including 1st on defense, while the Titans are not even the top team in their own division, ranking 21st overall.
Aside from the requisite workload for Derrick Henry, it’s very hard to imagine how Tennessee will score enough points to keep up with Buffalo. Without Arthur Smith, the Titans are just 27th in Passing Total Points and 29th in Receiving Total Points, and they will be going against the league’s top Pass Coverage unit.
On the other side, Josh Allen has been improving his play since a bit of an uneven start to the year. He is up to ninth on the Total Points leaderboard, and he is starting to develop some chemistry with first-year Bill Emmanual Sanders, a positive development for their postseason prospects.
One player who deserves some love on the Titans side of things is Kevin Byard, the top safety in the NFL in Total Points. That said, unless he can somehow fix their quarterback play and solve the Bills defense, it promises to be a long night for Tennessee.