Cover 3: Will Home-Field Advantage Finally Mean Something in Week 14’s Top Matchups?
Riding high one week, shot down the next.
That’s life in the 2021 NFL season.
The Cincinnati Bengals became the latest team to learn this harsh reality.
Entering Week 12 in control of the fifth seed in the AFC and a game behind the Baltimore Ravens for the division lead, the Bengals looked poised to take the next step in their bid to move closer to their first playoff berth since 2015. Cincinnati, after all, was coming an impressive 31-point thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers to improve to 7-4, while the Los Angeles Chargers arrived in Cincinnati for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff following a 15-point road loss to the Denver Broncos the week before – their fourth defeat in six games.
And then the 2021 season did what it does best – the opposite of what you might expect.
There was a time when the term home-field advantage meant something – and with good reason. Playing a game in front of your own loyal fans with the familiarity of your own stadium and not having to deal with travel and the unfamiliarity of a different venue filled with raucous fans who hate you is typically viewed as being beneficial. But nowadays it’s negligible.
Not only are teams finding success on the road, but those from the west coast are winning at a record rate when criss-crossing the country for an early Sunday game.
Teams from the Pacific Time Zone have a clear disadvantage playing Sunday early afternoon games in the Eastern Time Zone. Engaging in a battle on an NFL gridiron is no easy task, let alone after traveling across the country and dealing with jetlag. If that wasn’t enough, consider then participating in a physical battle when your body clock says it’s 10 a.m.
Reading defenses and picking up blitzing linebackers is a challenge at any time, especially when you might normally be enjoying a cup of coffee and scrolling through Twitter on a Sunday morning. The 1 p.m. ET kickoff has long been a hinderance for teams from out west, but that hasn’t been the case this season.
Not only are these road teams winning more frequently in this wacky 2021 season, but prior success also isn’t translating into forthcoming wins. It stands to reason, if a team wins in a blowout, it’s a good team and is capable of following that victory with another win. But this year, a big win one week doesn’t breed any success the next. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen division leaders like the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers fall one week after a lopsided victory.
Result After Wins by 25+ Points in 2021 vs. Previous 10 Seasons
So, circling back to the Bengals. Hosting a west coast team early Sunday afternoon, a week after trouncing the Steelers. They were doomed.
Sure enough, Cincinnati lost to Los Angeles 41-22 to slip into the AFC’s sixth spot, one place behind the Chargers.
There are no west coast teams playing early in the Eastern Time Zone this week, but we do have a couple teams coming off 31-point wins – the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams. The Colts don’t have much to worry about this week seeing as they’re on a bye, but the Rams figure to have their hands full and are featured as one of our top games of the weekend based on playoff implications and matchups.
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns (Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS)
Line: Browns by 3
The Analyst Win Probability: Browns 53%
Reasons to watch: The AFC North is a jumbled mess with all four teams sitting within two games of one another, and the 8-4 Ravens are in the driver’s seat with five to play. Getting to the finish line, however, won’t be easy. Among all NFL teams, the first-place Ravens and the last-place Browns each have the toughest remaining schedules. The remaining schedules for the division’s other two teams – the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals – are also no piece of cake.
Toughest Strength of Schedule – Weeks 14 to Week 18
|Team||Opp. Wins||Opp. Losses||Opp. Ties||Opp. Win%|
The Ravens enter this one a bit banged-up (what else is new) after placing Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. The move came days after Baltimore came up just short in physical battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers (what else is new), falling 20-19 when Lamar Jackson’s pass to Mark Andrews fell incomplete on a two-point try with 12 seconds to play.
Baltimore still has a one-game lead over Cincinnati in the division and sits in third place in the AFC, but the difficult remaining schedule coupled with the fact the offense hasn’t elicited much confidence lately is cause for concern. After averaging 27.6 points and 427.9 total yards of offense in winning six of their first seven games, the Ravens are averaging 15.3 points and 308.0 yards in splitting their last four contests. They’ve failed to score 20 points in each of their last four games for the first time in a single season since a franchise-record 10-game stretch to start 2005.
As much as Baltimore’s offense is struggling, Cleveland’s has been worse. Since drubbing the Bengals 41-16 in Week 9, the Browns have totalled 30 points in losing two of their last three, scoring fewer than 14 in three straight in a season for the first time since a six-game streak in 2016. One possible silver lining for Cleveland is that it’s coming out of the bye so should be a bit healthier when it takes the field for the first time since losing 16-10 at Baltimore in Week 12. Wait, consecutive games against the Ravens? That’s correct, the Browns are the first club since 1991 to play the same team in back-to-back regular-season games, and this is the first time for Cleveland since 1957, when it played the Philadelphia Eagles in Weeks 3 and 4.
Key matchup: Browns’ Rush Offense vs. Ravens’ Rush Defense
The Browns’ success stems from their ability to run the ball behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. When the duo was healthy in the season’s first five weeks, Cleveland led the NFL with an average of 187.6 rushing yards per game and 5.36 rushing yards per attempt while averaging 28.4 points in those contests. It has not rushed for more than 184 yards in any game since.
Despite its ground game being somewhat neutralized in the last two months with injuries to Chubb and Hunt, Cleveland still ranks second in the NFL on the season in rushing yards over expected at 0.996. It also ranks fifth in rush yards over expected on expected running plays at 0.614.
So, the big question leading into the matchup is can the Browns run the ball against the Ravens. Well, they couldn’t do it two weeks ago, finishing with 40 yards on the ground – their fewest since 2018 – in falling to 3-14 in the last four seasons when failing to reach the century mark in rushing yards. Chubb was limited to just 16 yards on eight carries while Hunt had 20 yards rushing on seven attempts as the Ravens stuffed the box, forcing Baker Mayfield to pass.
The ailing Mayfield put the ball in the air a season-high 37 times but completed just 48.6% of them. It’s obviously been a frustrating season for Mayfield and the last few weeks have been especially trying. Since Week 10, his open-target percentage of 73.4 ranks seventh worst while his pickable pass percentage of 8.86 is third worst among the 35 QBs with at least 40 attempts. The loss of Humphrey is significant for the Baltimore secondary down the stretch but might not be that much of a deterrent in this matchup if Mayfield can’t get the ball downfield to his receivers anyway.
The Week 12 matchup was the first time the Browns had Chubb and Hunt together since Week 5. In this meeting, coach Kevin Stefanski may insert both backs into the backfield at the same time to spark a sputtering offense. The two typically rotate to stay fresh but desperate times call for desperate measures and Cleveland has certainly reached that point of the season.
Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS)
Line: Buccaneers by 3
The Analyst Win Probability: Buccaneers 55%
Reasons to watch: Two months ago, it looked like these teams were on a collision course for the Super Bowl. While the Buccaneers have regrouped following a mini mid-season swoon, the Bills have been wildly inconsistent over the past several weeks.
Buffalo has alternated losses and wins in its last seven games, and since the calendar flipped to November, its only two victories have come over Mike White and the New York Jets and Trevor Siemian and the New Orleans Saints. In that same span, they’ve also lost to Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars and last week’s infamous defeat to Mac Jones as the New England Patriots ran all over the Bills with the rookie quarterback attempting all of three passes in windy upstate New York.
One thing is for certain this week – the Bills’ defense will see more pass plays than it did on Monday.
After a one-year reprise of Tom Brady, the Bills have to face their longtime adversary whose 508 pass attempts are 30 more than Patrick Mahomes for the most in the league. Brady leads an offense that throws the ball 66.9% of the time for the highest pass rate in the league and the 44-year-old QB threw four touchdown passes in last Sunday’s 30-17 road win over the Atlanta Falcons, increasing his NFL season-leading total to 34 and his career-record total to 615.
Seventy of those touchdown passes have come against Buffalo, and Brady needs two more to match the record for most TD passes against any single team – a record he already owns with his 72 against Miami to share with former Dolphins legend Dan Marino against the New York Jets.
One career record Brady already owns outright at the expense of the Bills are his 32 wins against them – the most victories by any quarterback against a single franchise. Along the way over the last two decades, the Bills have only managed to beat Brady a mere three times.
His Buffalo counterpart, Josh Allen, has looked like an MVP in some games and incredibly inefficient in others. The good – only Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford and Justin Herbert have more games with a 115 or higher QB rating than Allen’s four – and then there’s the bad – only Mahomes and Lawrence have more games with a passer rating of less than 80 than Allen’s five.
Allen and the offense couldn’t get anything going in the wind last week while facing a Patriots team that is considered to have one of the best defenses in the league, alongside the Bills. Brady and Bucs, meanwhile, boast one of the best offenses.
Buccaneers Offense and Bills Defense with NFL Ranks – 2021
|Category||Bucs Offense||Bucs O Rank||Bills Defense||Bills D Rank|
|Yards over Expected||0.643||3rd||-0.841||1st|
|Pass Yards Over Expected||0.751||5th||-1.299||1st|
|Successful Play Percentage||56.7||1st||41.9||1st|
|Yards Per Play||6.09||3rd||4.60||1st|
|Plays of 20+ Yards||56||4th||26||1st|
Key matchup: Buccaneers’ Receivers vs. Bills’ Secondary
Much of the Bills’ success against the pass can be attributed to the play of Tre’Davious White and last Monday was the Bills’ first game without the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback after he tore his ACL on Thanksgiving. The secondary wasn’t tested in the slightest against the Patriots but that will change with Brady and company.
The Bucs are one of three teams along with the Bengals and Chargers to have three players with at least 50 receptions, led by Chris Godwin’s 82 – the fifth most in the NFL. Godwin’s 75 burns are fifth most in the NFL, as well, and his open percentage of 83.5 is 12th best among the 40 players with at least 50 receptions. Mike Evans is one of the most dangerous receivers in the league, averaging 13.10 burn yards per target – fourth best among the 40 players with at least 50 catches.
Near the goal line, the two present further problems for the pass-heavy Buccaneers with Godwin leading all receivers with 18 receptions in the red zone while Evans’ seven catches inside the opponents’ 10-yard line are the most in the NFL.
None of this bodes well for Buffalo with White sidelined. White was one of the top shutdown corners in the league, with an open-allowed percentage of 57.6 to rank eighth in the league among the 73 corners with at least 40 defensive targets. Dane Jackson moved into the starting lineup last week but didn’t see much action as Bill Belichick opted to lean heavily on his exceptional offensive line and simply crush Buffalo’s soul. Expect Belichick’s former quarterback to expose the inexperienced Jackson on the outside and take advantage of the matchup this week. The league average open-allowed percentage for corners is 69.3 and Jackson has allowed open receivers on 81.8% of targeted throws in limited work. Brady, meanwhile, has the league’s second-lowest pickable pass percentage at 2.65 among QBs with at least 150 attempts.
Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals (Monday, 8:15 ET, ESPN)
Line: Cardinals by 2.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Cardinals 63%
Reasons to watch: It is likely the final ManningCast of 2021, as the brothers hinted they wouldn’t have another broadcast until the New Year at the conclusion of last Monday’s Patriots-Bills game, so you have to take advantages of these opportunities to watch Peyton and Eli. If that’s not enough reason to tune it, the game itself should be competitive and entertaining.
The Cardinals are atop the conference and can essentially wrap up the NFC West with a win, which would give them a three-game lead over the Rams plus the tiebreaker with four to play. Arizona won 37-20 at SoFi Stadium in Week 4, snapping an eight-game losing streak in the series. The Cardinals, however, have enjoyed more success on the road than at home – going 7-0 as the visitors compared to 3-2 in suburban Phoenix – and haven’t swept the season series since 2014, when the Rams still played in St. Louis.
Arizona returned from its bye last week with a 33-22 road win over a sloppy Chicago Bears team, taking advantage of four Andy Dalton interceptions to start scoring drives (three touchdown, one field goal) on the Bears’ 28-, 15-, 28- and 12-yard line. Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins both returned after missing all of November with injuries, but they didn’t need to do much thanks to the cushy field position. Murray did throw a pair of touchdown passes (one to Hopkins) and ran for two scores for his 13th career game with at least one throwing TD and one running TD – two fewer than Josh Allen for the most in the NFL since Murray’s debut in 2019.
Los Angeles also won last week – the first time it could stake that claim since Halloween. After an 0-3 November, a matchup with the Jaguars in Week 13 provided the perfect elixir, as the Rams rolled to a 37-7 victory, outgaining their overmatched opponents 418-197 in total yards.
Sean McVay turned back to the ground game, with Sony Michel carrying the ball on the Rams’ first three plays to set the tone. Michel rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown and Los Angeles finished with 128 yards rushing on 27 carries after averaging 71.3 yards on 17.0 attempts without a rushing score during its November slide.
The ground attack and play action helped set Matthew Stafford up for success, and he threw three touchdowns without an interception after a five-pick November and hooked up eight times with Cooper Kupp for 129 yards. Kupp, the league leader in receptions (100), receiving yards (1,366) and receiving touchdowns (11), is the first player in NFL history with at least 100 catches and 10 TD grabs in his team’s first 12 games. He brings an eight-game streak of 90 or more receiving yards into this matchup, as he tries to join teammate Odell Beckham Jr. and Hall of Famer Michael Irvin as the only players with a streak of nine games. The last time Kupp didn’t have 90 receiving yards in a game? The last matchup with the Cardinals when he was held to 64 yards on five receptions.
Key matchup: Rams’ Defense vs. Kyler Murray
The plan for the Rams is keeping Murray off the field, and when he’s on the field – contain him. When Los Angeles is on offense, running the ball is certainly a good way to keep the ball out of Murray’s hands. Getting the ground game untracked last week was a good start and the Rams should be able to build on that success against an Arizona defense that is susceptible against the run. The Cardinals have surrendered 48 plays for 10 or more yards rushing – the second most in the league – and 51.5% of all opponent running plays have gone for at least 4 yards – the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. Even when a run is anticipated, they still struggle to stop it, allowing an average of 0.743 yards over expected on expected running plays to beat out only the Detroit Lions and New York Jets for the league’s worst rate. In the first matchup, the Rams ran 23 times for 121 yards, averaging 5.26 yards per carry – their second-best showing in a game this season.
Despite Los Angeles’ success running the ball in the Week 4 meeting, Arizona took advantage of two turnovers and controlled the game, holding a 35:10-24:50 advantage in time of possession while running 75 plays – their second most in a game this season. Murray ended up producing one of his better games of 2021, completing 24-of-32 passes for 268 yards with two touchdowns while also rushing for 39 yards.
Murray is one of the best in the game at using his legs to extend plays. If the pocket collapses and things break down in front of him, he can scramble to give his receivers time to get open and he excels at getting them the ball.
So, the focus for Los Angeles must be keeping Murray from escaping the pocket and that hinges on the pass rush. Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is enjoying another outstanding season, leading the NFL with 60 QB hurries while winning 67.44% of his one-on-one pass rush situations – the league average for interior defensive linemen is 22.97%. Arizona’s interior has been stout in pass protection, however, with left guard Justin Pugh winning 81.82% of his one-on-ones, center Rodney Hudson winning 87.50% of his, and right guard Max Garica 77.50% of his. The league average for guards is 78.07% and centers are at 76.24%.
The big difference between this week and the last matchup between these teams is the addition of Von Miller to the Rams. Miller, though, has yet to be much of a difference-maker on the field like L.A. hoped when it shipped a second- and third-round pick to the Denver Broncos for the 2016 Super Bowl MVP. In three games with the Rams, Miller has nine tackles, 4.5 QB hurries, one QB hit and no sacks. This will be Miller’s first career game against Murray and the perennial Pro Bowler will need to use his athleticism to keep the Arizona quarterback from buying time to find an open Hopkins or Christian Kirk streaking down the field.
Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.