NFL Week 17: Mayfield’s Motivation

Last week was admittedly not the brightest of spots for the model, going 1-3-1 for -8.495u and generating the first losing week since Week 9. A performance like that is bound to pop up every so often given the size a one week sample is in the grand scheme of things. The highlighted newsletter play of HOU +2 -104 (2.403 for 2.3 units) pushed, with Nick Foles turning in his best regular season performances by most metrics since 2015. Highlighted plays move to 2-1-1 for +8.50u since the model’s introduction to the readers here and the model overall moves to 70-41-5 for +93.78u and a 21.15% ROI. Week 17 (luckily) has a lot at stake for a handful of teams, and should make for an entertaining week of football.

As I’ve mentioned before, spreads of +7 or higher have been removed from model consideration since Week 9. With so many of those spreads on the board this week, there are slim pickings when it comes to playable games. Luckily for us, there is one model play that is not only worth making, but one that includes two teams that I’ve been itching to talk about in detail for a while now.

There may not be two hotter teams in the NFL than the Browns and the Ravens, both 5-1 in their last six games. The Ravens’ run has come on the back of their incredible defense and the change at quarterback to Lamar Jackson, who with the help of John Harbaugh has completely changed the offensive identity of the now AFC East-leading Baltimore Ravens. A win on Sunday would secure an AFC East title and a four seed in the AFC, likely pairing them in a rematch with the Chargers (or a less-than-likely rematch with the Chiefs) during the Wild Card round. A loss would have them watching the Wild Card games from home instead.

As for the Browns, their run has come on the back of firing Hue Jackson. A win on Sunday doesn’t do much for the Browns as they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, very largely in part due to Hue’s incompetence which costed them potential wins earlier in the season. The common angle public bettors take year-after-year in Week 17 is that teams with something to play for (like the Ravens) should easily win and cover against teams that have nothing to play for (like the Browns). But do the Browns truly have “nothing” to play for?

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has not been shy when it comes to sharing what he believes he and the rest of team is capable of (and presumably indirectly, what Hue Jackson prevented them from accomplishing). This week is no different, as Baker Mayfield made it very clear what’s at stake for both teams: “They’re fighting for a playoff spot, and we’re fighting to prove who we are” (via ESPN). So now that we can clear this game of any motivational questions, we can take a higher-level look at the matchup.

The Ravens finished the 2017 season with a 9-7 record and without a playoff berth. Joe Flacco’s play and contract continued to draw criticism from Ravens fans and the front office made an attempt to give Flacco a better chance at succeeding (signing Willie Snead and Michael Crabtree, drafting Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst) while also warming up his seat a bit (drafting Lamar Jackson) to signal the urgency to perform in 2018.

Everything coming out of camp from Ravens beat writers signaled an invigorated Flacco and Baltimore offense, and pairing that with an already elite defense convinced me enough to project Baltimore in the model as the fifth-best team heading into the season. They would hang around that range during their 3-1 start until the Ravens stumbled through a 1-4 stretch during which Flacco would sustain a hip injury, and Lamar Jackson would be named the starter following their Week 10 bye.

Even before Flacco’s injury, you can see above that from Week 7 to Week 9 the Ravens pass offense had already began to decline whereas its run game began to bounce back. The shift from Flacco to the run-first, pass-shy Jackson gave John Harbaugh a chance to expand on these trends and completely shift the identity of the offense. The change to a run-first-and-keep-running offense also played into the Ravens ultimate strength: its defense. Running the ball at absurd rates meant the clock was moving more on offense compared to the previous iteration of the Flacco-ran offense, which works twofold in their favor. Opposing offenses are having to do more on offense with less opportunities. Per Evan Silva, teams are averaging 10.9 less offensive snaps per game against the Lamar Jackson Ravens compared to their season average. That is a 17% decrease in offensive snaps on average, meaning teams are losing almost a fifth of their offensive opportunities. Secondly, less opposing offensive snaps obviously means less defensive snaps for the Baltimore defense, which keeps their defense fresher and sharper which makes defending those limited opportunities easier. The spike in pass defense above illustrates this rather clearly.

Now despite this massive change and a 5-1 run, the Ravens’ expected wins number has only moved by 0.028 since the change. But sometimes staying afloat while others unravel is all you need in this league to survive. Before naming Lamar Jackson the starter, the Steelers were a surefire bet to win the AFC East and in the model there were four teams with two or more expected wins than the Ravens. Today, the Ravens lead the division and in the model there is only one team with two or more expected wins than the Ravens.

Shifting to Cleveland, the Browns were a team during my offseason deep dive and projection process that had a lot of talent I loved. Jarvis Landry was a great talent to add, Josh Gordon was seemingly going to turn it around (again), David Njoku was a developing freak at tight end, Nick Chubb was a draft prospect that really popped off the page, and Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward were incredible young defensive talents who I trusted to anchor their respective segments on defense. On the other hand, I admittedly was not the highest on Baker Mayfield and thought he would be above average at best. I did think Mayfield was better than then-starter Tyrod Taylor, but I also expected Hue Jackson to botch the handling of that situation (as well as the rest of the team). Two years of laughably bad coaching was enough to convince me that this team was doomed as long as that man was in town, and I projected them as the third worst team in the model.

The Browns season has been covered in much detail, so I don’t feel the need to recap how their season has gone. The above chart is a look at how the team has fared before and after Baker Mayfield becoming the starter and Hue Jackson getting the boot. Note that Cleveland’s pass offense under Hue Jackson peaked in the Jets game in Week 3 when Mayfield had to come in for the injured Tyrod Taylor.Also note that the pass offense got progressively worse from that point on until Jackson’s firing. Then note the absolutely incredible improvement to the Browns’ pass offense following his firing. Hue Jackson is a cancer to every talent, team, and organization he finds himself meddling with and I am absolutely bewildered that he was able to find legitimate work in the NFL so quickly (but am not surprised it was with the Bengals, of all teams).

For their Week 17 matchup, the Ravens and Browns currently rank 9th (9.000) and 16th (8.018) in expected wins in the model. This gives the Ravens a 52.88% chance of winning on a neutral field, good for a -1.5 spread under those conditions. After factoring in the various game-specific elements the model makes this game BAL -4.4. With the line set at BAL -6.5, there are 2.1 points of disagreement between the model and Vegas lines which makes CLE +6.5 -105 a model play risking 2.215 units to win 2.1 units. 

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