Like a vintage Patriots’ team, Wagerbop is getting hot when it matters. Since the beginning of Week 16, WB writers are 8-4 on NFL picks.
I’m going to lay out my takes on the AFC divisional round slate. You can get our thoughts on the NFC games here.
Titans @ Ravens – 1/11/2020 8:15pm
The Titans beat the Patriots in the playoffs. For most teams, beating the Pats in the playoffs means you just won the Super Bowl. Tennessee isn’t even thinking about the Super Bowl. They now face an even tougher matchup in the divisional round – the 14-2 Ravens.
Everyone – your friends, the media, random guys on Reddit – are saying this game is bound to be lopsided. Lamar Jackson. 14-2. The Ravens seem like a shoo in, but if there is one thing I know about betting the NFL, when everyone is sure the game will be a blowout, it’s going to be close.
Sharp bettors appear to be toying with the spread. A classic sharp tactic is putting a lot of cash on one side of the line to make it shift only to hammer the other side even harder after the shift gains an advantage for your preferred bet. That tactic appears to be in play this week.
The Ravens opened as 9.5-point favorites, shortened to -10, but are now back to -9.5 on Bovada. This is peculiar movement, but it proves there is action on both sides. I don’t think Tennessee is getting enough respect in this matchup. Here is what I see:
How Tennessee Attacked the Patriots and How They Will Look to Attack Baltimore
The Titans served New England steady doses of Derrick Henry all night long. The Patriots could do nothing to stop him. Henry totaled 182 yards rushing on 34 carries – his career-high in carries.
Heading into the matchup, I figured Titans HC Mike Vrabel would have to be creative in order to move the ball against Bill Belichick, whose first priority was shutting down Henry. Turns out all Vrabel had to do was call #22 all night and watch his 2019 rushing leader go to work.
Get a load of these stats from the Wild Card game: Tom Brady threw the ball 37 times in this game. Tannehill threw 15 passes. Henry carried the ball 34 times. The Patriots team combined for 22 carries. The Titans’ leading receiver had 2 catches for 23 yards. The Titans had 9 catches all night. That’s how infrequently Tennessee put it in the air.
Derrick Henry is hot right now. The man had 211 yards on the ground in Week 17 to secure his rushing crown and then followed it up with 182. You know Tennessee wants nothing more than to pound the rock 30+ times against Baltimore and get Henry around 200 yards again. That seems to be a recipe for success. In fact, the Titans are 7-0 this year when Henry rushes for 100+.
Many allude to the fact that Baltimore is 5th in rush yards allowed per game this year. These same people claim run-oriented Tennessee will never have success against a defense like Baltimore’s. Not so fast.
While Baltimore has limited opposing rush yards, it is not because they excel at stopping the run. It is because the Ravens rarely face the run.
Baltimore leads the NFL in points scored per game (33.2). Teams are typically trying to claw out of a hole when playing the Ravens. Opponents can’t afford to run. Baltimore has faced the fewest rush attempts of any defense in the league. However, teams that have had an opportunity to rush on Baltimore see decent success.
The Ravens allowed 4.4 yards per carry in 2019 – the 12th-most in the NFL. If Baltimore was allowing the 1st or 2nd-fewest YPC in the league, Tennessee might be scared, but not at 12th. Derrick Henry will have ample success running against Baltimore.
Getting Henry going early will be absolutely crucial for Tennessee in this one. You see, the Ravens have a very simple, yet effective gameplan. They begin by grabbing an early lead – which isn’t difficult to do when you have Lamar Jackson on your team.
Once they have an early lead, they know opponents will be reluctant to continue running the football. This is when Baltimore begins to sell out for big plays on defense. They blitz, blitz, and blitz some more. The Ravens sent pressure more in 2019 than any other defense.
Opposing quarterbacks have 2 choices – get the ball out quickly or be sacked. This eliminates the deep passing routes and forces the opponent to dink-and-dunk. Eventually, opposing quarterbacks get too impatient. They want to erase the entire deficit in one big play, so they take a shot. It hardly ever works.
Baltimore ranks 2nd in quarterback rating against and is tied for 10th-fewest in the league in plays of 20+ yards allowed. This does not bode well for the Titans who rely on deep passes.
Titans’ gunslinger Ryan Tannehill leads all quarterbacks in passer rating, yards per attempt, and yards per completion. The main reason for this success? Deep passes to his main man A.J. Brown.
Brown has hauled in 52 passes for 1,051 yards in 2019. That’s 20.2 yards per catch. If Tannehill can’t hit him deep on Saturday, the Titans’ offense takes a hit. Tennessee needs to find a way to get Baltimore out of their blitz-happy flow.
How do you keep the Ravens from following their preferred gameplan? There are 2 ways.
- Establish the run. This makes it much more difficult for Baltimore to grab an early lead. Also, it creates 2nd and 3rd-and-shorts as opposed to long yardage situations. This keeps the Ravens D honest and makes blitzes far less effective as check-down passes are exactly what Tennessee would need.
- Consistently beat the blitz through the air. Fortunately for the Titans, Tannehill excels in this area. This season, Tannehill has a 6/1 TD/INT ratio and a stellar passer rating of 116.4 against the blitz. Inside the redzone, he is equally as dangerous. Since Tannehill became the Titans’ starter, no other team in football has a higher redzone touchdown percentage than Tennessee. Tannehill might not be able to hit A.J. Brown downfield, but he can dice up the D with his tight ends and backs until the Ravens stop blitzing.
What a great matchup! On paper, Tennessee is one of the few teams who could take Baltimore out of their preferred gameplan – the one Baltimore uses to trounce opponents. If the get-the-lead-early-and-blitz-often strategy fails against Tennessee, this game will become an old-fashioned dogfight, exactly what the Titans hope for.
Everyone expects Baltimore to put a stop to Henry’s wild running, but that is not really how this Ravens’ defense is built.
How Can Tennessee Slow Down Lamar and the Ravens’ Offense
Moving the ball is only half of the equation for Tennessee. The Titans also need to slow down the highest-scoring offense in football led by a quarterback fresh off one of the best regular seasons in history.
The Ravens, much like the Titans, are a run-oriented offense. Unlike Tennessee, the Ravens have 2 guys who can kill you on the ground. The first is Lamar Jackson, of course. Jackson had a pretty good season, that is, if you consider breaking the rushing record for a quarterback “good”.
The other beast in the Baltimore backfield is running back Mark Ingram. It isn’t very often (at any level, even in video games) that a quarterback and his running back each have 1,000 yards rushing, but that is exactly what happened in Baltimore this year.
The Ravens rushed for over 200 yards per game in 2019 – an astounding feat in professional football. Through the air though, Baltimore has gained the 6th-fewest yards. Boom! That is the Ravens’ weakness, right? Wrong!
Although Baltimore does not pass very often, they are extremely deadly when they do. Lamar Jackson has a pristine 36/6 TD/INT ratio in 2019 with a passer rating of 113.3. Oh, by the way, those 36 passing touchdowns lead the NFL.
Jackson isn’t airing out deep balls all over the field as Tannehill likes to. Jackson prefers the short, safe throws. These open up on run-pass option plays (RPOs) because the defense has to respect Jackson’s extraordinary running ability. Lamar Jackson has ran 172 RPOs in 2019, by far the most of any quarterback. Give Ravens HC John Harbaugh credit, his offense is the perfect fit for Jackson’s skill set and is revolutionizing the league.
Jackson’s favorite target? His tight end Mark Andrews. Andrews leads the Ravens in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Tennessee is an especially good matchup for Andrews as the Titans allowed the 7th-most yards to opposing tight ends in 2019.
Once again, if Tennessee allows the Ravens to play their game – the Ravens will walk all over them. The key to victory is forcing Baltimore into 3rd-and-long situations. Coaches normally keep their gameplans a secret, but this one is obvious. Vrabel even laid it out in an interview earlier this week.
If the Ravens have 3rd-and-shorts all game long, they will win. Respecting Mark Ingram on an RPO, while then containing Jackson as he rolls out all while covering Mark Andrews in a short-yardage situation is impossible.
The key to defensive success will be to blow up first and second down plays to force the Ravens into passing situations. Although Jackson’s passing numbers are great, he is far more unproven through the air than he is on the ground.
Tennessee stands a good chance of holding Baltimore on 1st and 2nd down. There are 2 reasons for this.
- Baltimore is coming off a bye and their starters haven’t played in 2 weeks. RPOs and the short passing game are all about timing. All it will take is a couple of missed reads, poorly-timed throws, or poorly-run routes to force an extra punt or two – giving Tennessee the advantage.
- Titans’ linebacker Rashaan Evans has been playing at an elite level lately. The 2nd-year run defender out of Alabama is graded 49.9 on ProFootballFocus for his 2019 season. At certain times throughout the year, Evans has been a nonfactor. If anyone is capable of blowing up Jackson and Ingram in the backfield – it is this guy. I have a quick video for you in case you missed his single-handed goal line stand in New England.
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) January 5, 2020
If I was in a pick ‘em league and had to pick a winner, I’d take the Ravens. However, this isn’t a pick ‘em league. There are point spreads and moneylines. Tennessee deserves to be the underdog, but the game will only get out of hand if Henry can’t run and Tannehill can’t beat the blitz.
If either are doing their job, Tennessee is no more than 5-point dogs, as they were to New England. If you read my Ultimate 2019-20 NFL Playoffs betting guide, you know it is wise to fade teams coming off that first-round bye. That stat confirms the pick I already wanted to make. Take Titans +9.5 (-105). If you wait until Saturday, you might get lucky and see that line move back to +10.
Texans @ Chiefs – 1/12/2020 3:05pm
The Texans won in thrilling, come-from-behind fashion last weekend while the Chiefs watched comfortably from home. Believers in momentum would lean Houston in this contest, but those believers are few and far between.
Despite winning the regular season meeting 31-24, Houston enters Arrowhead as 9.5-point dogs. The line opened at KC -7 but has since shifted 2.5 points – a large swing. Houston is a tough team to figure out right now. I drew some positives from their OT win against Buffalo but the Texans’ weaknesses were exposed in that game.
Houston’s Weaknesses – Why They Could Get Blown Out
The in-game announcers stated that Houston had a sloppy week of practice before Wild Card weekend, and it showed. The Texans started slow in their opening playoff game for the second year in a row and it almost cost them.
Houston didn’t score in the first two quarters against Buffalo. Their halftime adjustments were slow to take effect as they then lost yardage on their first drive of the 3rd quarter. The Texans managed just 92 total yards of offense in their first 5 drives.
I think a lot of bettors are scared that Houston will start slow against Kansas City and will be unable to recover. Starting slow is exactly what the Texans did when they met the Chiefs in Week 6. KC jumped out to a 17-3 lead in the 1st quarter. However, Houston stormed back and gained the lead by halftime.
Slow starts have not come back to bite Houston yet this year, but it’s not good for your blood pressure to bet a team who routinely falls behind early. Slow starts were one of Houston’s main weaknesses this season.
Another of Houston’s weaknesses is Laremy “False Start” Tunsil. Tunsil plays on the left side of Houston’s O-line, almost always at tackle. During the Buffalo game, Tunsil picked up his 13th and 14th false start penalties of the season – a staggering number (most O-lineman have far fewer).
Tunsil also got burned several times by the Buffalo pass rush, especially early on. Left tackle is not a position you want to be weak at heading into a playoff game against the Chiefs who have the 12-most sacks in the league.
A third weakness shown by Houston is undisciplined defense. The Bills are not world-beaters on offense and even they had no problem tricking the Texans’ D.
It began in the first quarter when Texans’ linebacker Whitney Mercillus failed to cover Josh Allen as he ran a wheel route from the backfield while in the red zone. John Brown had all day to hit his quarterback for a pretty easy touchdown.
Fast forward to early in the second quarter – about 11:00 on the clock. The Bills are knocking on the door but are faced with a 3rd and 10. The red zone is supposed to be where your defense tightens up, but the Bills got John Brown wide open heading toward the sideline near the goal line.
If you’re Houston, how do you leave the other team’s best receiver wide open in a red zone situation? Luckily for the Texans, Josh Allen wasn’t having his best game throwing the football and led Brown too far. Out of bounds. The Bills settled for a field goal.
Although they lived to tell about it, the Texans allowed 2 receivers to get wide open in the red zone in the first 20 minutes of the game. Inexcusable. I don’t think Patrick Mahomes will be as forgiving as Josh Allen.
Now jump to the 2nd half. J.J. Watt is playing more snaps than he did in the 1st half and the Texans are generating a lot of pressure. Each play, they are pinning their ears back, getting to Allen, and … oh wait … they forgot to honor the screen.
This happened in the fourth quarter, inside of 5 minutes. The Texans had stormed back to take a 19-16 lead and Buffalo must now score or go home. Houston needs a stop to seal the win. Boom! Almost immediately, the Bills slip Devin Singletary out for a screen pass and he turns it into a 38-yard reception.
The Bills knew this play would work. It was there all game. Buffalo was saving it for a key moment. They realized a screen would fool Houston who was getting a bit lax in their assignments. Houston’s M.O. late became “intimidate Josh Allen” rather than “play fundamental D” once they saw how flummoxed Allen was becoming in the heat of the moment.
This huge screen play from Singletary reinforces the fact that Houston’s defense is very prone to overcommitting and blown coverages. Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman will make you pay real quick for bad coverage.
Josh Allen also had a couple of nice scampers against the Houston D, one for 42 yards in the 1st quarter and one for 20 late in the 4th. More chunk plays.
The Texans’ Strengths and Kansas City’s Strengths
After bashing on Houston for a few paragraphs, I’ll give them some love. The Texans are very good at running the football. Houston picked up 192 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground against Buffalo and this was no fluke.
The Texans rank 9th in rushing yards per game this year and 10th in rushing yards per carry. KC is pretty bad at defending the run, allowing the 5th-most yards per carry and the 7th-most rushing yards per game in the NFL.
The Chiefs are lacking in run defense but they make up for it by playing especially solid pass D – allowing the 8th-fewest pass yards in the league. Both KC’s passer rating allowed and completion percentage against rank top-5 in the NFL.
DeAndre Hopkins was quiet by his standards against Buffalo, but Kansas City is not the opponent for a bounceback. KC has allowed the fewest yards to wide receivers of any team in football.
Expect Kansas City to play Houston defensively much like Buffalo did. KC will take away the deep stuff and key in on DeAndre Hopkins on crossing routes – allowing Watson to check down to his backs. Carlos Hyde had a big game in the Wild Card. Duke Johnson made some big plays too, and Houston still struggled to score against Buffalo. I don’t see this game being any different.
Houston’s only chance for chunk plays are if WR2 Will Fuller can suit up for this one. Fuller missed the Buffalo game and is a game-time decision for Sunday. A healthy Will Fuller would probably shrink the line back to -7. Unless Fuller is completely healthy, his most valuable attribute – speed – will suffer.
Why could Houston win? They run well and KC struggles to stop the run. Also, their pass rush looked great in the 2nd half against Buffalo.
Why will Kansas City probably win? Jumping out to an early lead seems extremely likely for the Chiefs. This would take away the Texans’ ability to run often. After neutralizing this Houston strength, KC would have an advantage on both sides of the ball – rendering a Texans comeback nearly impossible.
With an early lead, Mahomes wouldn’t have to drop back to pass as often. This would also neutralize J.J. Watt who excels in pass rushing.
This game will come down to which team has the faster start. If Houston grabs an early lead and controls the tempo, they can use their dominant run game to wear KC down. If KC grabs the lead, it’s over. The Chiefs learned from their Week 6 blunder – they won’t blow another one.
I have to side with the Chiefs -9.5 (-110). While Houston has the weapons to hang, it will take some breaks for the game to play out in a way that those weapons can be properly utilized. I like Kansas City to get ahead early and stay ahead.
See you on top!