Clutch Encounters: BAL-CIN
by Scott Kacsmar
Our first foray back into a Thursday night game following Sunday action reminded us of just how sloppy these contests can be. Within the game's first four minutes, there was:
- an interception,
- a near-interception by Eric Weddle in the end zone,
- a third-down sack,
- two stuffed runs,
- three flags thrown,
- and two fumbles (neither lost) on punt returns.
In addition to all that, A.J. Green also got the benefit of a "bang-bang play" to avoid his third fumble of the young season.
If you only watched the first four minutes and the second half, you might think these teams were incompetent messes, but there were plenty of highlights in between, especially for the victorious Bengals. Despite his poor history in prime-time games, Andy Dalton threw four touchdowns before halftime, then cooled down to set up a close finish.
Baltimore's first attempt at avenging Week 17's season-ending loss to Cincinnati certainly did not go as planned. The Ravens trailed 21-0 after 17 minutes, which had us wondering just how bad Buffalo might be considering Baltimore destroyed the Bills 47-3 last week. Of course, the transitive property is fool's gold in the NFL. The Ravens then climbed back to make it 28-23 in the fourth quarter before the Bengals shut down another rally attempt with a big fumble recovery late in the game to win 34-23, the same score by which they won in Indianapolis in Week 1.
In a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters, we'll look at some points of interest from Thursday night's division battle.
The defenses of the Colts and Bills don't seem to be the best litmus tests this season, so facing each other was going to be a good challenge for these division foes after both offenses finished in the top nine in DVOA in Week 1.
The Bengals' revamped offensive line kept Andy Dalton very clean on the night, though rookie center Billy Price was injured at the end of the first quarter. (It was not a good night for injuries. Baltimore lost star linebacker C.J. Mosley on just its third defensive snap.) Second-year wideout John Ross has yet to prove he'll catch more than one pass in a game, but Tyler Boyd, 2017's fourth-down hero, scored again on the Ravens and led the team with 91 receiving yards.
Green only had 69 yards but scored three touchdowns to give the Bengals a quick 21-0 lead. This was the 108th game of Green's career (including playoffs) and the first time he scored three touchdowns. He has already matched his touchdown count from 2016 (four) and is halfway to his 2017 total of eight scores. So we weren't going to go two Thursday nights in a row where a team couldn't figure out how to get their stud wideout the ball in the red zone, though Green's second touchdown could have been prevented if Baltimore could tackle or if Weddle had not stepped in quicksand in center field.
A.J. Green with TD number two tonight, and it's a beaut. Bengals lead 14-0 with 6:26 remaining in the first. pic.twitter.com/F0EB6Kyhn9
— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) September 14, 2018
As for Joe Flacco, he threw for 300 yards for the first time in his last 21 games. It might not sound impressive when you see that he finished with 376 yards on 55 attempts (6.84 yards per attempt), but he was actually around 8.0 YPA when he crossed 300 yards. He just had a lousy final drive. The upgrade at wide receiver seems to have had a positive impact so far. Michael Crabtree (56 yards), John Brown (92 yards), and Willie Snead (54 yards) all had at least 50 yards on the night, and Brown had a great 21-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter against perfect coverage from Dre Kirkpatrick. That's just not the type of play you were going to see Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, or Breshad Perriman make last year.
Dre Kirkpatrick is one of the best corners in the league at being right there, in position to challenge, but still giving up the reception. Good play by John Brown for the TD. pic.twitter.com/mk8vo4iKkN
— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 14, 2018
Baltimore's passing game may be improving, but the running game still couldn't get Alex Collins (nine carries, 35 yards) going for the second week in a row. The Ravens continued to mix rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson into the offense in a role that might look like what Kordell Stewart did for the 1995 Steelers with Neil O'Donnell as the traditional starter should they ever start throwing to Jackson. It's too early to tell if those gadget plays are really helping the offense or not.
Flacco had some frustrating moments in the second half in a winnable game after the Cincinnati offense had settled down. The second interception, when he was hit by Carlos Dunlap as he threw, was not the problem. On a fourth-and-2 at the Cincinnati 44 with 6:45 left in the third quarter, the Ravens decided to go for it down 28-17. That was a good call, but as if teams learned nothing from the Patriots' fourth-and-2 fiasco of 2009, you have to attack the sticks on those plays. Flacco threw short on a pass to Buck Allen and the Ravens came up a yard short of converting. That's the kind of conservative play that has stifled this offense for years with Flacco.
Hedging on the Spread
I wrote this recap for two reasons. First, I wanted to get this failed comeback attempt out of the way so we're not rehashing it for Tuesday after what looks like a strong Week 2 schedule. The other reason is I just wanted to do some quick research on point spreads to see if my process was fair about how to predict this game after the Bengals went up 28-7. Baltimore was a 1-point favorite heading into the game (up to -1.5 depending on your source). That's pretty marginal, but it basically means a 4-point favorite on a neutral field.
I noticed the live spread had the Ravens at +18.5 shortly after it was 28-7 Cincinnati. Baltimore soon dropped to +15.5 while the offense was driving late in the second quarter, which led me to tweet this:
My gut: take Ravens +15.5. https://t.co/gLjAb7FQQa
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 14, 2018
This was the 825th regular-season game since 2002 in which a team took at least a 17-point lead (a three-possession margin) during the first half. Those teams are 756-69 (.916) straight up with Green Bay's nice comeback over Chicago last week serving as the 69th blown lead. We expect that kind of record, but how many go on to win the game by at least 17 points too?
Out of the 825 teams, 506 won by at least 17 points (61.3 percent). That's definitely better than a coin flip, but a lot of these teams that jumped out to a big, early lead were expected to win the game. In fact, 603 (73.1 percent) of the teams were favored in the game and just under 40 percent were favored by at least 6 points, according to spread data from Pro Football Reference. The teams favored to win had an average scoring margin of 21.9 points.
What about the 212 underdogs (10 games were a pick 'em)? Those underdogs finished with an average scoring margin of 11.7 points, or over 10 fewer points than the favorites. Of the 69 teams that blew the big lead, 42 of them were underdogs (60.9 percent), unable to slay Goliath for good after four quarters of action. Meanwhile, only seven teams blew a 17-point lead while being favored by at least 5 points in the game.
So when a favorite took a 17-point lead in the first half, they've gone on to win by at least 17 points 70.5 percent of the time. When an underdog took a 17-point lead in the first half, they've gone on to win by at least 17 points 35.4 percent of the time. If the spread is fairly small (1 to 3 points), the underdog still only scores the big win 42.9 percent of the time.
If you bet on a favorite and they're down big early, then it is usually a safe pick to hedge with them not losing the game by that three-possession margin. Of course you'll always have to consider the context of the game. Is it Week 17 and the team clearly doesn't give a damn what happens? Does it look like Aaron Rodgers isn't coming back at 17-0, and DeShone Kizer is going to be fed to the Bears some more? Then maybe you go the other way there, but Baltimore +15.5 was an easy pick.
Baltimore's Failed Comeback
After that great touchdown catch by Brown shown earlier, the Ravens failed on a two-point conversion to keep the game at 28-23 with 9:35 left. The defense could have gotten the ball back for Flacco to win the game, but a long drive (6:36) ensued and the Bengals were able to tack on a field goal. They seemed pretty content with the field goal after getting into the red zone, but 31-23 is a comfortable lead with 2:59 left.
Flacco had all three timeouts to drive 75 yards, but Baltimore's drive was a mess. Crabtree wasn't even ready for a second-down pass, quickly bringing up third-and-10. With the drive threatening to not even last 20 seconds, I actually thought Flacco needed to be smart with his throw in case the Ravens wanted to punt with four clock stoppages left. If they went for it on fourth-and-10 and failed, the game would basically be over after a Cincinnati field goal. However, we didn't even get to that decision because Flacco was stripped after the strong pursuit from Shawn Williams. It was a great effort play.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 14, 2018
The Bengals wisely ran the ball three times and Randy Bullock kicked a 40-yard field goal to go up 34-23. Flacco still had 2:25 left, but at that point it was a matter of driving for a field goal, recovering an onside kick, and completing a Hail Mary followed by a two-point conversion to force overtime. Yeah, good luck with all of that.
The embarrassing part was what the Ravens did on second down after Flacco spiked the ball at the Cincinnati 25 with 25 seconds left. Flacco should have taken one shot into the end zone before they brought out Justin Tucker for a field goal. However, Flacco threw a short pass to his tight end for a 2-yard gain that kept the clock running. That's absolutely absurd. The Ravens compounded this mistake by declining the field goal on fourth down to throw yet another short pass in bounds to run out the clock and end the game. Did they not consider the field goal and onside kick recovery would still leave enough time for a Hail Mary? It was a terrible ending to an all-around poor night for Baltimore.
And that last-second blunder is how the Bengals ended up winning 34-23 for the second time in five days. This is only the third time in franchise history (after 2005 and 2006) that the Bengals started 2-0 with a pair of double-digit wins.