November 28, 2021

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Up Two Scores Against The Ravens? They’ve Got You Right Where They Want You.

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The Baltimore Ravens are 6-2, at least a game ahead of every AFC North rival and a half-game behind the Tennessee Titans in the race for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. If they just keep playing the same way they’ve played their first eight games, they could be on track to finish with a 9-8 record and miss the playoffs completely.

Wait, what?

Four of the Ravens’ six wins have come in games where they reached a win probability of less than 15 percent in the second half, according to ESPN’s win probability model. On Sunday against the visiting Minnesota Vikings, the Ravens went down 17-3 in the second quarter, trailed 24-10 in the third quarter, pushed the Vikings to overtime, threw an interception in overtime and somehow still won the game.

In Week 2, Baltimore took a 1-point lead, its first of the night, over the Kansas City Chiefs with only 3:14 left in the game — and had to force and recover a fumble to hold it. In Week 3, they needed to convert a fourth-and-19 on their own 16-yard line with just 26 seconds left and hit an NFL-record 66-yard field goal, all just to beat the still-winless Detroit Lions. Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5, the Ravens trailed 25-9 with just over 10 minutes left in regulation, and their overtime walk-off touchdown gave them their only lead of the game. Baltimore also lost one of these white-knuckle games, dropping its season opener in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders.

So the Ravens won one game in which they had as low as a 1-in-7 chance of victory and three out of four games in which they had less than a 1-in-10 chance (including one that was 1-in-1,000!). The gambler’s fallacy tells us Baltimore is “due” to lose a whole bunch of close games. But with the talent the Ravens have, and the way they’ve played, how likely is Lady Luck to walk with them deep into the playoffs?

There’s no question the Ravens have a contending-caliber offense; they rank second in per-game yardage and seventh in per-game scoring. Quarterback Lamar Jackson leads the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, and he’s personally ranked sixth in rushing yards (600) and first in yards per attempt (6.19). It’s no surprise that Jackson isn’t called on to throw as often as most quarterbacks; the Ravens have thrown less often than 17 of the 31 other teams. But when Jackson throws, he can make big plays: He ranks ninth among all quarterbacks in passing yards, sixth in yards per attempt and 11th in Total Quarterback Rating. Jackson also ranks 12th in adjusted completion rate, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

But when they aren’t adjusted for the fact that he’s chucking it deeper on each average throw than all but one other quarterback (10.1 air yards per attempt), Jackson’s efficiency numbers drop. His raw completion rate ranks 23rd (65 percent), NFL passer rating 17th (96.2) and adjusted net yards per attempt 15th (7.02). He’s also got the seventh-highest off-target percentage in the league.

An offense that relies on a big advantage in the run game, and then takes big shots through the air that don’t always land? It sounds like a strategy that could take a while to get going each game, and that’s exactly what it’s been. The Ravens are averaging just a field goal per game (3 points) in first-quarter scoring across the year so far, tied for 22nd. But they do warm up:

Baltimore scores more and allows more in the fourth

Points scored vs. points allowed per quarter for the Baltimore Ravens, through Week 9 of the 2021 season

Quarter Points scored Points allowed Point margin
First 3.00 3.88 -0.88
Second 9.25 6.63 +2.62
Third 5.75 6.75 -1.00
Fourth/OT 9.63 7.13 +2.50

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

They rank sixth in second-quarter scoring (9.25), 10th in third-quarter scoring (5.75) and third in the fourth quarter and overtime combined (9.63). However, their defense — which is ranked 21st in points allowed per game and 23rd in yardage — isn’t doing them any favors. In fact, the defense’s performance almost mirrors the offense: After allowing an average of 3.88 points per first quarter (tied for 14th-best), the Ravens’ defense is surrendering about a touchdown in each of the three quarters after that. 

It’s no wonder the Ravens keep finding themselves coming from behind: Their offense starts slow, while their defense bends but doesn’t break — until the second quarter, when the defense breaks and stays broken. Baltimore usually ends up on the right side of the ledger at the end of the game, outscoring opponents by 3.25 points per game. But that’s only 12th-best in the NFL, and scoring margin is an important factor in most NFL metrics, including FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings.

When trying to define NFL teams as being “lucky,” analysts often compare real-world wins to expected wins based on point differential. The Ravens have at least one full win more than many of the NFL predictive models would project; Pro-Football-Reference.com projects a record of 4.6-3.4 instead of their actual 6-2.

What’s more, Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and Pro Football Focus’s point-spread power rankings rank the Ravens 23rd and 26th in the league, respectively, in strength of schedule to date — and both models expect a big jump in opponent quality from here on out. If Baltimore continues to play with fire like this, it’s likely the Ravens will get burned a lot more often.

However, FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, Football Outsiders’ playoff odds and Pro Football Focus’s point-spread power ratings all take head-to-head matchups into account when projecting win-loss records and playoff odds. Lucky or not, the Ravens already have six real-world W’s, and all of these projections point to them picking up at least five more over the next eight weeks. That translates into odds of better than 4-in-5 to make the AFC playoff field, across the board, not to mention a significant chance to win it all.

Baltimore crashing out of the postseason between now and Week 18 would be almost as unlikely as them coming back from 24-10 to beat the Vikings on Sunday.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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