Monday Night Rivalry Showdowns

MONDAY RIVALRY SHOWDOWNS: BENGALS/RAVENS AND CHARGERS/RAIDERS

It's become an annual tradition that ESPN gets a pair of games on their first Monday Night of every NFL season. The league knows that it can't miss with divisional rivalry games because there's always bad blood when hated foes take the field. Plus, early in the season, all 32 teams think they're contenders!

As promised we're back to run through the numbers for both games using key indicator information. Comments will be a bit briefer than normal because we're trying to fit two games into the same amount of space that's usually reserved for one. The fun starts at dinner time with Bengals/Ravens. Let's jump right in...

CINCINNATI AT BALTIMORE (7 p.m. ET on ESPN)
Las Vegas Spread: Baltimore by 6, total of 41.5

Vegas sees Baltimore as the superior team again this season. This spread suggests they'd be laying a field goal on a neutral field...and would be about pick-em were the game being played in Cincinnati. Note that the opener here was Baltimore by 6.5, which means there was some "sharp" support for the Bengals when the numbers first went up. Cincinnati has gained respect from many in the markets as a feisty dog in big games.

2011 WON-LOST RECORDS/SCHEDULE STRENGTH
Cincinnati: 9-7 (21st ranked schedule according to USA Today)
Baltimore: 12-4 (22nd ranked schedule according to USA Today)

Teams in the same division often play very similar schedule strengths given the nature of the block format. So, the differential in the records does tell an important story. Baltimore was the better team last year. Cincinnati was a Wildcard caliber team that's hoping to get better as young quarterback Andy Dalton improves. Baltimore just missed reaching the Super Bowl last year, and is once again on the short list of title contenders.

2011 TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Cincinnati: even
Baltimore: +2

We mentioned this with Pittsburgh yesterday...Baltimore and Pittsburgh are two defenses who you think of as turnover forcing machines. Yet, neither team picked up as much as you would have expected in the category last season. The Steelers were a disaster. The Ravens were a slight positive rather than a big positive. Scary for Cincinnati and Cleveland in this North division that the two powers have so much upside this year in this important category. The Bengals can be proud of a dead even mark considering that they were breaking in a kid quarterback. It's actually a very good sign for Dalton's future that he generally avoided implosions.

2011 OFFENSIVE STATS
Cincinnati: 319.9 yards-per-game on 5.0 yards-per-play
Baltimore: 338.7 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play

Not much difference here. Baltimore was 20 yards better per game (which is worth a little more than a point) and two-tenth's of a yard better. This is a strike against veteran quarterback Joe Flacco that he could only outperform the Red Rifle by so little. Note that Baltimore is installing a faster tempo this year in hopes of keeping opposing defenses off balance. It's tough to beat the powers in this league with an offense that can't reach 350 yards per game or 5.5 yards per play.

2011 DEFENSIVE STATS
Cincinnati: 316.3 yards-per-game on 5.0 yards-per-play
Baltimore: 288.9 yards-per-game on 4.6 yards-per-play

That's a championship caliber defense from Baltimore, which is why they got so close to winning the AFC last year (remember that a short missed field goal at New England prevented the AFC Championship game from going overtime). Cincinnati isn't quite elite...but anything at 5.0 or less is terrific. They're knocking on the door of elite if they can find another impact defender who pushes them over the top.

IMPORTANT CHANGES IN 2012
We have the same head coaches and the same quarterbacks. The big change here is on offense for Baltimore where they're going to try to push tempo and attack with more authority. This could turn them into an awesome force...or it could blow up in their faces pretty badly. We're talking about the big arm of Joe Flacco here. He is going to make big plays if defenses can't handle the pace. He's going to get sacked and fumble if his own blockers can't handle the pace! We will be watching this game very closely to see how a hated divisional rival with a good defense handles the tempo challenge.

 

SAN DIEGO AT OAKLAND (10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN)
Las Vegas Spread: Oakland by 1, total of 47

This line has been moving slowly toward the Raiders since it first went up many days ago. San Diego was a small favorite at the beginning of the week. Smart money moved the Raiders past pick-em, which tells you something about what West Coast sharps think about the new head coach and the new attitude. Constant change is rarely good in this league. But, settling things down after turmoil usually is. The market is telling you it likes what it sees so far with this new regime. Not enough to make them a field goal favorite...but enough that the Raiders can compete heads-up with a playoff contender.

2011 WON-LOST RECORDS/SCHEDULE STRENGTH
San Diego: 8-8 (26th ranked schedule according to USA Today)
Oakland: 8-8 (20th ranked schedule according to USA Today)

It was a very weird year in the AFC West last year. We talked about Denver last night...the team that won the division but still dumped its quarterback. Here we have a San Diego team that is still seen as a potent force by many even though they went 8-8 vs. a crappy schedule...and an Oakland team that's still seen as a laughingstock by some pundits even though they went 8-8 vs. something closer to league average. They weren't supposed to be even teams last year. It turns out they were, which is a slam against Chargers coach Norv Turnver and quarterback Philip Rivers.

2011 TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
San Diego: -7
Oakland: -4

Both teams had troubles in this area. Both like to look downfield. Both will live with some turnovers if they can score some big points in the process. Both managed to do enough to reach 8-8 in a topsy-turvy division.

2011 OFFENSIVE STATS
San Diego: 393.1 yards-per-game on 6.0 yards-per-play
Oakland: 379.5 yards-per-game on 6.0 yards-per-play

The similarities continue. It took many a long time to realize last year that Oakland really did have a good offense that could get some things done. They ended with the same yards-per-play as San Diego and only about 14 yards less per game (worth about a point). Those are big numbers for both teams. You'd have to say that it was worth the turnover gamble in the big picture. Greatness comes from volume without turnover issues. Both of these offenses are trying to be great. Give them credit for that.

2011 DEFENSIVE STATS
San Diego: 346.6 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play
Oakland: 387.6 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

Again, we see dead even numbers on a per-play basis (these teams were so similar!). San Diego allowed about 40 fewer yards per game though because opponents got fewer plays. The Chargers converted 49% of their own third downs on offense, which kept opposing offenses off the field (Oakland could only manage 36% on their own third down tries). In a year where very little separated these two teams...you could truly say that the way Rivers helped his own defense was the single biggest difference. Didn't amount to a hill of beans though since they both finished 8-8!

IMPORTANT CHANGES IN 2012
Oakland's new head coach Dennis Allen has earned good reviews so far in terms of professionally managing a team. That's something new in Oakland! The late Al Davis is no longer in position to overreact to any little thing that happens. He did build a great franchise, but he also kept it from being great now for way too many years. New management. New coach. And, a chance Monday Night to start a new era with a big divisional win.

BEST EXPECTATIONS
There's just enough new stuff in the machinery to keep last year's information from providing pure projections in both of these games. Baltimore's success or failure with its new tempo will impact the side and total of Game One. Oakland's performance under fire with their new coach will do the same thing in Game Two. Last year's results would have suggested a physical defensive battle in Baltimore, and more of a track meet in Oakland. Tonight? Don't make a move until you hear what JIM HURLEY has to say!

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23
Nov

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