8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ravens -3, Over/Under: 48
Week Nine comes to a conclusion in the Big Easy, as the Baltimore Ravens look to widen their lead in the AFC North in this primetime affair with the New Orleans Saints, who have newfound life in the suddenly wide-open NFC South. Though they managed to continue their maddening trend of participating in close games, the Ravens (5-3, 1st in AFC North) strung together consecutive victories for the first time this season, moving into undisputed ownership of the division at the midway point of the campaign. Even though they’ve once again suffered their share of injuries to notable playmakers (I.E. Mark Andrews), Baltimore is finding ways to make things happen on the offensive side of the football, with (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Lamar Jackson once again proving to be the straw that stirs the proverbial drink in Charm City. Of course, by now we all know this year’s theme for the 25-year-old who is betting on himself to land a HUGE new contract after grossly outperforming his rookie deal; the final pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Jackson (pictured below) is 42-15 as a starter (.736), with 122 total touchdowns, and more yards (4,226) and scores (23) of the rushing variety than any other Quarterback in the NFL since he was drafted, while earning 2019 MVP honors, and taking the blackbirds to the postseason on three occasions. Furthermore, he’s the ONLY player at his position to throw for at least 3,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 yards in the same season, and he’s done it TWICE, while on pace to do it a third. With injuries once again depleting the supporting cast around him, Jackson has carried the Offense through the first eight weeks of action, completing 63.0% of his passes for 204.2 yards per game on 6.15 net yards per attempt with fifteen touchdowns opposed to six interceptions and a QBR of 63.7, while rushing for another 553 yards and two scores on an NFL-best and career-high 7.4 yards per carry. Granted, those passing numbers probably won’t wow you in this area of fantasy-dominated football, but make no mistake, if you force him to beat you with his arm, you may be left with a deep sense of regret. Or at least ask the Buccaneers, whom he torched in the second half of last week’s primetime showdown on the Gulf Coast (more on that matchup shortly). However, Jackson’s talents aren’t the only reason that the Ravens have appeared to have turn the corner, for the Defense, which was much maligned at the beginning of the campaign, has really started to find their legs under the watch of (Defensive Coordinator) Mike Macdonald. After last season’s meltdown, (Head Coach) John Harbaugh felt that a change was needed on Defense, leading to the hiring of Macdonald, who had spent last season helming that side of the football for John’s brother, Jim, at the University of Michigan. Granted, Macdonald is very familiar with the personnel on hand, as well as the younger Harbaugh, whom he had worked under for six years before taking a one-year sabbatical in Ann Arbor, so it’s not as if this was a major transition for Baltimore. With that said, it wasn’t a smooth start for the 35-year-old, whose return to the NFL saw his charges relinquish 458.0 total yards through the first three games, including a 353.3 through the air, though much of that was due to a nightmare showing against the Dolphins, who torched them for forty-two points and 547 total yards, 461 of which coming via the pass. Over the past five weeks, it’s been a much different story, with the Ravens yielding a far more respectable 308 total yards, including a much more palatable 214.8 versus the pass. Through it all, takeaways have been the overriding factor for this unit, with fifteen thus far (4th Overall) leading to a healthy turnover margin of plus-6.
When we last saw the Ravens, they won consecutive games for the first time this season and improved to 3-1 on the road along the way in a 27-22 comeback victory over the Buccaneers at Raymond-James Stadium last Thursday night. This one was always going to be a tough nut to crack for Baltimore, whose punishing rushing attack collided with Tampa’s unyielding run defense, forcing the visitors to pursue other avenues for success. Indeed, in this matchup of the irresistible force meets the unmovable object, the visitors have decided to air it out after a less-than-stellar first half; Harbaugh’s troops punted on four of their first five possessions of the night, turned it over on downs and missed a field goal shortly before halftime to enter intermission trailing 10-3. The second half was a very different story, as the Ravens flipped the script on the Bucs, marching downfield for three consecutive touchdown drives and a field goal, amassing 289 total yards along the way. Jackson was a perfect 8-for-8 passing for ninety-four yards and a pair of touchdowns. As a team, Baltimore rushed for 231 yards on thirty-three carries, allowing them to control time of possession for a commanding 38:23, with the likes of (Rookie Tight End) Isaiah Likely making quite the debut with seventy-seven yards and a touchdown on six catches in place of the aforementioned Andrews, who departed the field of play early with nagging knee and shoulder injuries. Defensively, they permitted 349 total yards, though only forty-four came on the ground, as Macdonald’s charges got after Tom Brady throughout the affair, sacking him three times, hitting him on six occasions, and racking up six pressures to boot. Looking to tonight’s matchup with New Orleans, the Ravens have won five of seven all-time meetings, though came up just short in their most recent, a 24-23 loss at M&T Bank Field back in 2018, which featured a young Jackson scoring the first touchdown of his career. Baltimore is 6-4 against the spread in their last ten games on the road, though are 0-3 in their last three as a favorite, which is the case tonight. The blackbirds have never lost in the Superdome, covering the spread in each of their two trips southward, and are 3-1 against the spread in their last five meetings with the Saints when favored. With that said, Harbaugh’s outfit is 0-3-1 against the spread following an ATS win. In terms of the total, this one could very well go under the number, for their last four games played on turf have gone under the projected total. On the injury front, we already touched upon Andrews, who is listed as questionable, though could be rested in lieu of the coming bye week. (Sophomore Receiver) Rashod Bateman is expected to be out until after the bye with an ailing foot, while (veteran Tailback) Gus Edwards is day-to-day with a nagging hamstring. With the trade deadline passing on Tuesday, Harbaugh and (General Manager) Eric DeCosta were active in acquiring the services of (young Linebacker) Roquan Smith in a deal with the Bears for second and fifth round picks in next year’s NFL Draft. The 25-year-old currently leads the league with eighty-three tackles and must have left quite an impression when Harbaugh and DeCosta saw him up close in last season’s trip to the Windy City in which the former eighth overall pick logged a career-high seventeen tackles. It remains to be seen if Baltimore will activate him for tonight’s primetime affair.
Meanwhile, after an uneven first half of the campaign, the Saints (3-5, 2nd in NFC South) have been handed a lifeline in what has been nothing short of a wide-open division that has been cast into unpredictability thanks to the struggles of the (reigning champion) Buccaneers. With that said, this isn’t how the post Sean Payton era was supposed to play out in New Orleans, with many predicting them to be a dark horse candidate to retake the NFC South crown that they wore proudly from 2019 to 2021. Indeed, after rebuilding a once-pathetic Defense into a borderline elite unit, (longtime Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen was tabbed to replace Payton as their leading man, with this being his second chance as a Head Coach after floundering in Oakland (8-28 from 2012 to 2014). The train of thought here was that while Payton’s departure was certainly huge, the franchise would limit the fallout by keeping the rest of his coaching staff largely intact. Couple that with the healthy return of a number of key offensive playmakers and this team had all the makings of one primed for a comeback, right? In the wise words of Lee Corso: not so fast, my friends. Sure, continuity is great in theory, but it’s hard to put it into practice when the personnel simply can’t get healthy. Needless to say, the injury list has often been full of notables for Allen & Co, who have been without the following individuals for multiple games now; (Quarterback) Jameis Winston, (Receivers) Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry, (Right Tackle) Trevor Penning, (Tight End) Adam Trautman, and (Cornerback) Marshon Lattimore to name but a few. As a result, there just hasn’t been much consistency on either side of the football, with the Offense ranking in the top-ten in a slew of categories including points (24.9) and total yards (406.4), though marred by a whopping SIXTEEN turnovers, the third most in the NFL thus far. This of course, has trickled down to the Defense, which has yielded the fifth-most points in the league (25.0). A minus-9 turnover differential will do that to anyone, as we saw was the case with back-to-back pick-sixes in a 42-34 loss at the cardinals two weeks ago. Fortunately, it hasn’t been all hellfire and chaos for these Saints, who have been fortunate to receive inspiring play from a number of players who have made the most of the injury crisis in the Big Easy. First and foremost, (veteran Quarterback) Andy Dalton has proven that he’s far from finished as a starter in this league; after spending the last two years in a backup role in Dallas and Chicago, the former Pro-Bowler is making the case to keep the job once Winston (multiple back fractures) returns to full strength, completing 65.2% of his attempts for 235.0 yards per game on a very healthy 6.99 net yards per attempt, with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Apart from those two costly picks in Arizona, Dalton (pictured below) has refrained from making the mistakes that have characterized the career of Winston, with the fact that the Offense has a whole has really taken to his leadership under center; New Orleans has averaged 29.6 points on 407.2 total yards, including 248.2 through the air with a minus-3 turnover differential (which is even if you take away that ill-fated trip to the desert), in comparison to just 17.0 points on 373.0 total yards and a minus-5 turnover margin in the three games in which Winston started. Secondly, with Thomas (foot) and Landry (ankle, neck) missing extensive time, (Rookie Wideout) Chris Olave has made an impact regardless of who has thrown him the football, leading all rookies in receptions (37) and receiving yards (547). Lastly, after dealing with some nagging bumps and bruises through the first four weeks, (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Alvin Kamara has settled into his comfortable role as the team’s primary playmaker on this side of the football, averaging 145.3 yards from scrimmage on 5.85 yards per touch, highlighted with THREE total touchdowns in last weekend’s 24-0 shutout of the listless Raiders, which we’re going to spend more time on three, two, one….
When we last saw the Saints, they managed to snap a two-game losing streak and get back into the race for the NFC South all one fell swoop, hammering the Raiders in that aforementioned shutout, proving that there is indeed plenty left in the gas on both sides of the football. After punting on their opening drive, New Orleans scored on four of their next five possessions, with three touchdowns, all of which came courtesy of Kamara. As the final score would indicate, this one was about as one-sided as it gets, ladies and gentlemen; the hosts held significant advantages in total yards (367-183), rushing yards (136-38), passing yards (231-173), and time of possession (34:51), with Kamara totaling 158 yards from scrimmage on twenty-seven touches. With that said, the story of this game was clearly Allen and his Defense. There’s that old adage of the past coming back to haunt you, which was clearly the case for the Raiders on Halloween weekend, as Allen must have had this one circled on the calendar for months. And who could blame him given how his tenure with the Silver & Black ended? Past misgivings aside, the Defense was in need of a strong showing, which they provided in spades; the Saints didn’t allow the Raiders to progress past midfield until there was just over two minutes left in the contest, relegating them to a scant EIGHTY-TWO total yards prior to that final drive. (Veteran Safety) Tyrann Matheiu logged his first interception since arriving via free agency in the Spring, while (Sophomore Defensive End) Payton Turner had half of his team’s four sacks of Derek Carr. Looking to tonight’s meeting with the Ravens, there is plenty of history between Dalton and his former AFC North adversaries. In eighteen career encounters, the 35-year-old has amassed an 8-10 record against Baltimore, completing 56.8% of his passes for an average of 250.4 yards 6.44 net yards per attempt, with thirty total touchdowns, though also twenty-five total turnovers and thirty-three sacks, which both represent the most he’s authored against any single opponent. As a team, New Orleans has covered just three of their last ten games as an underdog, and two of seven all-time meetings with Baltimore. Furthermore, Monday Night Football hasn’t been kind to them from a betting standpoint, as they’ve lost four consecutive games against the spread on Mondays, while also failing to cover four straight outings at home against teams with winning records on the road, which is the case here tonight. On the injury front, the Saints could get Lattimore back on the field after the Pro-Bowl Cornerback missed the last four games with an ongoing abdominal strain, which would really be a boon to a Secondary that has been beset by injuries of late. There’s a chance that Landry could finally get back into action too, with the veteran Receiver missing the last four as well with an ailing ankle.