Round one of the playoffs features a rematch of the last week of the NFL season with the Baltimore Ravens taking on the Cincinnati Bengals. Baltimore is limping into the playoffs and will be without their former league MVP under center, as the Ravens have ruled Lamar Jackson out for the game in Cincinnati. The defending AFC Champion Bengals enter the playoffs on a hot streak, winning their last eight games, not including the game canceled against Buffalo. The Ravens on the other hand, have lost three of their last four.
In this matchup of two AFC North teams trending in different directions, sportsbooks have set a line with the Bengals as 8.5 point favorites and an over/under of 40.5 points. Let's go over some of the biggest storylines ahead of this game and see if we can decide if there is a gambling edge.
Who Will Start in Place of Lamar Jackson at Quarterback for the Ravens?
The Ravens have not named a starter less than 24 hours ahead of Sunday evening's round one playoff game. Backup Tyler Huntley has been dealing with a shoulder injury and is a "game-time decision". If Huntley is unable to go, rookie Anthony Brown will start again against the Bengals, after going 19 of 44 for 286 yards and 2 interceptions in last week's loss.
Vegas has reacted to the news that Lamar Jackson won't play and Huntley may also miss the game, moving the line from 7 to 8.5 in favor of the Bengals. Sometimes it is hard to tell if this is a genuine reaction to a line that possibly expected Jackson to get the start, or if it is simply just to balance out the amount of bettors that raced to the window to place a bet on the Bengals when the news broke.
It makes sense the Ravens would want to keep under wraps who they hope to start on Sunday, as Brown and Huntley play vastly different styles, and forcing the Bengals to prepare for both is to their advantage. Huntley is a much bigger threat with his legs and provides a significantly larger upside for Baltimore. The fact he was a full participant in Friday's practice makes me believe the Ravens are absolutely prepared for him to be the starter this weekend, but we will have to wait and see.
So what does it mean in terms of covering the spread? Well Tyler Huntley isn't exactly setting the world on fire with just three total touchdowns and three interceptions this season. In fact, the Ravens have yet to score more than 17 points in any of his five games this year. Combine that with at least some semblance of a shoulder injury and it's hard to believe this game won't be in the hands of the defense and the running game for Baltimore.
If Huntley does play however, I would expect the Ravens to have a significantly different plan of attack then the one in Week 18 that saw Anthony Brown attempt 44 passes against the Bengals secondary.
With Brown under center, I think it will be incredibly difficult to cover this 8.5 point number, but with Huntley and his ball control style the Ravens have a chance. Only one of Huntley's five games this season finished with a margin greater than the 8.5 spread in this game.
Beyond the tangible however, you have to think some wind has been taken out of the players' sails after hearing that Jackson won't play. If the Ravens fall behind early with an offense that must run the ball and sustain drives, this could spell a quick mental check out spurred by the Baltimore players' frustration about missing their most dynamic weapon.
What About the Super Bowl-Experienced Bengals Offense? Can the Ravens Hope to Contain All Those Weapons?
Joe Burrow is truly something special, completing a second consecutive season of over 4,400 yards passing and a quarterback rating over 100. The Bengals passing attack features weapons all over the field and are tough for any defense to contain, having caught fire during the team's winning streak.
Meanwhile the Ravens entered the year with a highly touted secondary that has underwhelmed, ranking 26th in the league in passing yards allowed. It's particularly more disappointing when you factor in the division they play with doesn't feature high octane offenses outside of Cincinnati. However, the plethora of yards through the air hasn't translated to points against the Baltimore defense, which ranks 3rd allowing just 18.5 points per game. This is because the Ravens have one of the top red zone defenses, allowing touchdowns on less than half of their opponents drives inside the 20 yard line.
The biggest question mark for the Bengals is the same as it was in the playoffs last year, can the offensive line hold up and give Burrow enough time to find Jamar Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins for big plays. Two starters on the Bengals offensive line, Alex Cappa and La'el Collins, will miss this Wild Card game and as a result it's critical the rest of the line steps up in their absence against a Baltimore pass rush that generates significant pressure and sacks.
Are There Any Betting Trends We See that Can Help Ss Place a Bet on This Game?
Most of the bets are on the Bengals, which makes sense when you consider a casual fan prefers to bet on Joe Burrow than a team who hasn't named a starter hours before the game. However, over 50 percent of the money has come in on the Ravens to cover, which tells you the sharps just don't think it's easy for a divisional team to win by more than a touchdown.
Most of the money has come in on a total of under 40.5 points, understandable when you consider the Ravens difficulty scoring with their backup quarterback.
So What's the Bet?
I picture this game going one of two ways; The Bengals jump out to a big lead and the Ravens can't keep up, and give up early, a bit dejected as Cincinnati covers. Or the Ravens slow the game down with a heavy rushing attack and a strong red zone defense that allows them to keep the score low and stick around just long enough to cover.
Feeling divisive about a game means I will have to keep my bet sizing down and stick to my gut. I think John Harbaugh is a great coach who will come in with a plan and his team will be prepared to execute that plan regardless of who is taking the snaps. I think the Bengals typically play much better in the second half, especially on defense. With that— the Bengals win after a slow start, but the Ravens cover 23-17. I'm going with the sharp money and with Baltimore on Sunday Night.
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