Cover 4: What to Expect for the AFC’s Top Contenders in Week 6
Chargers-Ravens. Cardinals-Browns. Bills-Titans. Chiefs-…Football Team. There’s going to be plenty to see in Week 6. Here’s the backstory for each of these matchups.
It’s premature to call the Buffalo Bills’ authoritative victory in Kansas City last weekend a changing of the guard in the AFC. What is certain, however, is that the two-time reigning conference champs are in for a real fight to defend their crown.
While the Bills shouldn’t be booking flights to Los Angeles in February just yet, they’ve rightfully earned their present status as betting favorites to claim the Lamar Hunt Trophy by virtue of a dominant 4-1 start capped by a 38-20 win over the slumping Chiefs. And if history is any indication, they stand a very good chance of representing the AFC in Super Bowl LVI.
Buffalo joined the 1999 St. Louis Rams and 2007 New England Patriots as the only teams since the official AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to score 170 points or more and allow 65 or fewer through a season’s first five games. That “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams team won it all that year, and that Pats squad famously won its first 19 games before being upset by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
The Bills and Tennessee Titans currently stand as the conference’s two teams with two-game leads atop their respective divisions as they enter a Monday Night Football showdown that we’ve selected among our spotlight games of Week 6.
Buffalo still does have company at the head of the AFC in the form of the rising Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens, two 4-1 teams set to do battle in Charm City in another of our featured contests.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, an unwelcome combination of sloppy offense and horrific defensive play has the Chiefs nearing crisis mode as they head to Washington for a vitally important game we’ll also break down and explain why it’s not quite panic time for the conference’s preseason favorites.
And let’s not forget the NFC, which still houses the league’s lone 5-0 team as the Arizona Cardinals put that unblemished record on the line against a Cleveland Browns outfit looking to bounce back from a smarting loss to the Chargers last weekend.
So without further ado, let’s reveal how we here at The Analyst see how these marquee matchups may unfold:
Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) at Baltimore Ravens (4-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Line: Ravens by 2 1/2
The Analyst Win Probability: Ravens 53%
We’ve pegged this game as one of the week’s toughest to predict, which should be no surprise considering how both teams have repeatedly shown a flair for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The Chargers have trailed after three quarters in three of their four wins, including last week’s thrill-packed 47-42 triumph over the Browns in which the Bolts scored 12 unanswered points in the final 3:15. The Ravens, meanwhile, trailed by 16 points early in the fourth quarter before pulling out a 31-25 overtime victory over the Colts on Monday night thanks to the miracle work of Lamar Jackson, who became only the second player in the Super Bowl era with 400 passing yards, 50 rushing yards and four passing touchdowns in a game. Four of Baltimore’s five games have been decided by six points or less with two of those outings going to overtime.
Both teams have been among the NFL’s best in the fourth quarter this season. Los Angeles leads the league with 59 fourth-quarter points and ranks second overall in point differential for the period, while Baltimore isn’t far behind.
While the focus will rightfully be on the game’s two terrific quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, the outcome may hinge on if the Ravens are able to re-establish a once-dominant running game that managed only 86 yards against Indianapolis, Baltimore’s lowest output since Jackson took over as a full-time starter in Week 11 of the 2018 season. The opportunity may present itself, as the Chargers have been gashed for 186 yards or more on the ground and over six yards per carry in three of their last four games.
Los Angeles still won two of those games, however, with Herbert throwing four touchdown passes and no interceptions each time. And a somewhat shaky Baltimore pass defense will surely be challenged by the Chargers’ outstanding wide receiver combo of Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. Williams’ burn percentage (the rate at which a receiver does his part to achieve a successful play regardless of the quality of the quarterback’s throw) of 70.6 is well above the league average of 61.1%, while Ravens cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett have a combined open-allowed percentage (the rate at which a defender allows a targeted receiver to be open) of 74.6 with the league norm at 69.2%.
Both teams have been successful despite constantly playing with fire. One will get burned this time.
The Analyst Projected Outcome: Ravens 29, Chargers 23.
Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) at Washington Football Team (2-3)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 6 1/2
The Analyst Win Probability: Chiefs 59%
So, what exactly is wrong with the Chiefs? For starters, their minus-7 turnover margin is the second worst in the NFL, ahead of only winless Jacksonville. The pass rush has been near non-existent, ranking last in the league with seven sacks and tied for 23rd in quarterback pressures, and the defense as a whole is giving up yards and points in bunches. It’s a testament to Kansas City’s still-formidable talent level and coaching expertise that it’s 2-3 at this point instead of 0-5.
The Chiefs haven’t had it easy either early on, having tied for the toughest strength of schedule in terms of current records through five games. Their three losses have come to the Ravens, Chargers and Bills – teams that are combined 12-3.
Patrick Mahomes is going through a rough stretch with six giveaways over the last three games, but his 83.5 well-thrown percentage does rank fourth among quarterbacks with at least 140 pass attempts this season. Combine that with a relatively low 2.20 pickable-pass percentage and there’s reason to believe the 2018 NFL MVP is due for a bounce-back soon.
But will it be this week?
Washington does present some challenges, particularly in the form of a persistent pass rush that’s produced a league-high 102 pressures through Week 5. The Football Team has been especially strong in that area up the middle, as tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen stand third and fourth, respectively, among interior linemen in pressures where a lineman beats a specific blocker. That could pose a problem for a Kansas City offensive line that may not have Joe Thuney at his best after the standout left guard broke his hand in the Buffalo loss.
The Chiefs’ greatest injury concern, however, lies with Tyreek Hill, who’s availability for this weekend is of now in question due to a hip contusion. The game-changing receiver’s 74.5 burn percentage ranks third among wideouts with at least 30 targets, and should be a major headache for a porous Washington pass defense if active. Washington has allowed four touchdown passes in three straight games and was roasted for a pair of long scores through the air in last week’s loss to New Orleans.
Kansas City’s the better team here, but it’s also a little hard to trust right now until it gets healthier and can work out some of its issues.
Stats Perform Projected Outcome: Chiefs 28, Washington 25.
Arizona Cardinals (5-0) at Cleveland Browns (3-2)
Sunday, 4:05 pm ET, FOX
Line: Browns by 3 1/2
The Analyst Win Probability: Browns 53%
Here’s another that could go either way. The Browns’ defense turned in a clunker in Los Angeles, but it’s been generally good all season and may have had a valid excuse for last week’s meltdown after corners Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both left in the first half with injuries. Williams was starting because talented rookie Greg Newsome, Cleveland’s first-round pick, missed a second straight game with a calf injury.
The good news is that all three are expected back this week, and the Browns will need all hands on deck to best combat perhaps the most varied passing attack in the NFL. The Cardinals’ 5-0 start has been built upon Kyler Murray’s precision and wealth of quality targets, although one won’t be available after tight end Maxx Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against San Francisco. Arizona is still the league’s only team with four players (DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, A.J. Green) with 250 or more receiving yards, and Murray has joined legends Peyton Manning (2013) and Drew Brees (2018) as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with 1,500 passing yards and a completion rate of 75% or above through a season’s first five games.
Murray should be tested by Myles Garrett and a persistent Cleveland pass rush that’s fourth in the NFL in sack rate (8.8% of opponent dropbacks) and fifth in total pressures, but the Browns’ real advantage may come from its powerful ground game that leads the league in rushing yards (187.6 per game) and yards per attempt (5.4). The Cardinals’ defense has surrendered an unhealthy 5.7 yards per rush attempt over the last four weeks. That high number may be partly attributed to Arizona often playing with a lead and putting most of its focus on preventing big plays in the air, but stopping the run isn’t a strength.
The X-factor here may be the health of Cleveland’s dynamic running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, both of whom missed Wednesday and Thursday’s practices with listed injuries.
Stats Perform Projected Outcome: Browns 28, Cardinals 22.
Buffalo Bills (4-1) at Tennessee Titans (3-2)
Monday, 8:15 ET, ESPN
Line: Bills by 5 1/2
The Analyst Win Probability: Bills 70%
The public is heavily backing the Bills in this one, with the line having moved two points in Buffalo’s favor from its initial opening. And our model concurs that the Bills should prevail here, as we’ve tabbed them as the most likely winner of the week.
Yes, the Titans are a first-place team, but that’s mostly because they’ve been less awful than the Colts, Texans and Jaguars in the punching-bag AFC South. They’ve been decidedly average in most areas and overly reliant on Derrick Henry, who’s accounted for the highest percentage of his team’s scrimmage yards of any player thus far.
Henry will no doubt be the central component of Tennessee’s game plan Monday night, but the Bills have been very solid in defending the run. For the Titans to be able to pull off what most would view as a significant upset, others will need to step up in support of their star running back.
That means you, Ryan Tannehill. You too, Bud Dupree.
Tannehill has been fine during Tennessee’s 3-2 start, as his well-thrown percentage of 81.1 ranks 11th among qualified quarterbacks (min. 140 pass attempts). That’s a bit of a drop-off from his 2020 figure, when he finished second in that category and fifth in the league in passer rating. He’ll need to outplay Josh Allen like he did with a highly efficient, three-touchdown performance in the Titans’ 42-16 rout of Buffalo last season for Mike Vrabel’s team to have its best chance.
Allen wasn’t great in that game, throwing two interceptions and averaging a pedestrian 6.4 yards per pass attempt, and there’s data that suggests his strong 2021 numbers could be in for some regression.
His pickable pass percentage of 5.23 is considerably higher than his actual interception rate of 1.1%, which indicates some good fortune may be involved in his overall decision-making.
The Titans may be able to force some mistakes from Buffalo’s franchise quarterback if their pass rush can turn up the heat. Allen was constantly under siege in the Bills’ lone stumble, their season-opening loss at Pittsburgh, and an offensive line that’s undergone some in-season shuffling has been generally middle of the pack in pass protection.
That’s where Dupree comes in. The former Steeler has missed Tennessee’s last three games and was mostly invisible in the first two while still not fully recovered from last December’s ACL tear. He’s expected back this week, and provided he can reclaim the form that prompted the Titans to pay big for his services this past offseason, there’s potential for a stout pass rush from a defense which already has some quality along the front seven in linemen Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry and Harold Landry off the edge.
Don’t put too much stock in the Titans’ blowout win from a year ago. That game took place on a Thursday night with the Bills traveling on a short week and doing so with starting corners Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace out with injuries.
Buffalo does stand a good chance of exacting some revenge, though the Titans are talented enough to make this more of a game than it may appear to be.
Stats Perform Projected Outcome: Bills 26, Titans 25.