Cleveland @ Houston (-7.0)
Power rankings: Cleveland 11, Houston 32
Spread update: This line remains at 7.
Deshaun Watson has returned to face off against his former team. Naturally, there's a ton of controversy regarding his participation in the NFL, and you'll find me firmly on the side that believes the Browns and the NFL were far too lenient on Watson. That said, the football game is happening, and we're here to break down what our bet looks like.
Watson hasn't played a game since January 3rd of 2021 -- almost two full years ago -- and he's only been allowed to practice with the team starting 11/14. That gives him 3 weeks with his new teammates to shake off 2 years of rust. It's safe to say he won't quite be himself right away, but we should still expect a highly efficient passer with running upside. It's also a dream situation for Watson -- Cleveland's offense is 4th in DVOA and 6th in EPA/play against a Texans defense that is 27th in DVOA and 23rd in EPA/play (against an easy schedule). The Browns boost a top 5 offensive line, a decent trio of receivers (Amari Cooper has been excellent while TE David Njoku and Donovan Peoples-Jones have been good complimentary options, although Njoku could be out with a knee injury), and the best 1-2 punch at running back in the league. The Texans defense has been a disaster everywhere except for their pass rush -- they boost average pressure rates despite only blitzing 17.1% of the time (Atlanta is lowest at 14.1%). Jerry Hughes, at 34 years young, is still a very good pass rusher -- his 42 pressures is double anyone else on the Texans. Hughes typically splits times between the left and right side, but the Browns have a solid tackle duo in Jack Conklin and Jedrick Willis Jr. Hughes could certainly cause problems there -- both tackles are indeed solid, but they're having down years -- Willis in particular has surrendered 27 pressures this season -- 12th most in the NFL. Outside of Hughes, it's hard to see anyone along the Texans line winning their matchups -- particularly along the interior where the Browns boost the strongest guard combination in the NFL (Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio). The Texans do also have a veteran presence at corner between Desmond King and Steven Nelson, but it isn't enough to make up for the deficiencies around them. Houston could also be without 3rd overall selection CB Derek Stingley Jr. (hamstring). Stingley was having a tough year anyway, but his absence forces the Texans to go further down a depth chart that isn't good. 2018 UDFA Tavierre Thomas is the next man up -- Thomas was a decent corner last year, but has struggled this year since returning from IR on 11/3. Nick Chubb and the Browns run game is 3rd in DVOA against the Texans run defense that ranks 30th. If there was ever a time for Watson to knock some rust off, this is a good place to start.
The Texans are also going through QB changes -- benching starter Davis Mills in favor of Kyle Allen last week. Allen faced a mediocre Dolphins defense last week (they're 17th in DVOA) and earned a 40.2 grade from PFF. PFF charted him with 5 turnover worthy plays (that's a lot), which resulted in 2 interceptions, 2 fumbles, and a measly 5.6 passing yards per attempt. You are more than free to take a deep dive into Allen's 664 career passing attempts, but you'll be left with the conclusion that he simply isn't good. The pieces around Allen aren't great either -- they have a bottom tier offensive line that is only strong at one position (LT Laremy Tunsil), below-average receivers (Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins aren't bad, but it isn't enough), and a very good rookie running back in Dameon Pierce. The Texans offense comes into the week ranking dead last in both DVOA and EPA/play, making it easy to understand why they made the QB switch, but Allen isn't the answer either. The good news for the Texans is the Browns defense is almost as bad -- ranking 29th in DVOA and 31st in EPA/play. Myles Garrett is a problem for whatever player he faces and Jadaveon Clowney is a solid pass rusher, but the rest of the line is poor. Even with Garrett and Clowney, Cleveland ranks 21st in pressure rate. The Browns do have a few other players who are having decent seasons - LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been an asset in coverage, LB Sione Takitaki is well-rounded, and CB Martin Emerson (3rd round rookie out of Mississippi State) is allowing a 83.6 passer rating into his coverage and supporting a 75.9 coverage grade from PFF. The rest of the defense -- including Denzel Ward -- represents weaknesses that a normal competent offense can pick on. Fortunately for us, that excludes the Texans. The one problem I could see Houston causing is in the run game -- Pierce ranks 11st in the NFL averaging 3.42 yards per attempt after contact against the Browns run defense that is 30th in DVOA.
Denver @ Baltimore (-8.5)
Power rankings: Denver 29, Baltimore 4
Spread update: This line remains at 8.5.
Keys to the game: Russ Wilson's cringe-worthy personality off the field has matched his performance on the field. Russ ranks 31st of 39 qualifiers in PFF grades while completing 58.6% of his passes (4.7% below expectation). Under Wilson, the Broncos offense ranks 29th in DVOA and 28th in EPA/play. They have a mediocre offensive line, a 32 year old running back in Latavius Murray, and a wide receiving group that is likely without Jerry Jeudy (ankle) and KJ Hamler (hamstring). Courtland Sutton is a quality receiver, but the Ravens secondary, consisting of corners Marlon Humphrey/Marcus Peters and safeties Kyle Hamilton/Geno Stone, is one of the strongest in football. Even if Marlon Humphrey can't play (currently not practicing with an ankle injury), it should be more than enough against the Broncos. Hamilton -- who was taken 29th overall this year out of Notre Dame -- is PFF's highest graded safety this season. The Ravens defensive line boosts below average pressure rates, but are allowing just 3.9 yards per carry against the run, good for 3rd best in the league (Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike is a strong 1-2 punch at defensive tackle). The Ravens best pass rusher -- 33 year old Justin Houston -- typically lines up over the left tackle where he'll face off against Calvin Anderson, who has struggled filling in for the great Garrett Boles. The Ravens defense is 9th in DVOA (8th against the run, 9th against the pass) without any glaring weaknesses. If Russ is ever going to figure it out, it's unlikely to be on Sunday.
The Ravens offense is 5th in DVOA and 7th in EPA/play this season. Lamar Jackson the passer is 12th in PFF passing grades while completing 62.1% of his passes and gaining 6.9 yards per attempt. Lamar the runner is also averaging 6.9 yards per attempt on the ground -- a feat that Rob Gronkowski would surely be proud of -- and is 2nd in the league behind Justin Fields in QB rushing yards. The Ravens have one of the strongest offensive lines in football that excels both in the pass and run game. They'll have a decisive advantage against the Broncos defensive line that is decimated by injury -- leaving edge rusher Baron Browning and tackle Dre'Mont Jones as the only competent players. Browning -- a 3rd round pick from 2021 -- burst onto the scenes after injuries forced him into the starting lineup -- but a hip injury knocked him out week 7 and he's struggled since returning week 11. Jones also isn't practicing with an illness. Denver does have a strong group of linebackers (Alex Singleton and Josey Jewell) and an above-average secondary, but they've been without slot corner K'Waun Williams (wrist/elbow/knee), which leaves them weak at corner behind Patrick Surtain. It's not the worst thing to be weak at corner against a Ravens team that relies so heavily on TE Mark Andrews, especially since the Broncos rank 8th in DVOA covering tight ends. Denver's defense is 8th in DVOA and 3rd in EPA/play. I see them playing well in the pass game, but they are far weaker against the run (17th in DVOA) against a Ravens offense that ranks 2nd in rushing DVOA.
Jacksonville @ Detroit (+1.5)
Power rankings: Jacksonville 21, Detroit 20
Spread update: This line has moved slightly toward the model -- Jacksonville is now a 1 point favorite.
Keys to the game: Thanks to a much improved Trevor Lawrence, the Jags offense is 14th in DVOA and 10th in EPA/play. Lawrence has had some stinkers this year, but he's been incredibly strong in his last 3 games against the Raiders (32nd in DVOA), Chiefs (18th), and Ravens (9th). In total, Lawrence ranks 18th in PFF grades while completing 66.5% of his passes (1.4% below expectation) and gaining 6.9 yards per attempt. Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Marvin Jones, and Evan Engram is at least respectable weapons for Lawrence while Travis Etienne has been one of the better running backs in football, ranking 6th in yards per attempt and 4th in PFF rushing grades. The offensive line is dead last in PFF run blocking grades but 3rd best in pass blocking efficiency, which partially explains why they've been better throwing the football (11th in DVOA) than running (22nd). They should have plenty of success against a Lions defense that is 24th in DVOA and dead last in EPA/play (against the 3rd hardest schedule). The Lions don't have much of a pass rush outside of rookie Aidan Hutchinson (who isn't on any elite levels, but is playing well for a rookie), instead relying on scheme to generate pressure. Detroit blitzes at a 31.2% rate, 5th highest in the league. The Jags line should hold up fine in pass protection, which works out well since Lawrence has the third worst passing grade under pressure, and run protection is a classic example of bad vs bad. The rest of the Lions defense doesn't have any major holes, but there aren't any strengths either. They are better against the pass (19th in DVOA) than the run (26th). I'd expect Lawrence's hot streak to continue.
The Lions on offense are 12th in DVOA and 15th in EPA/play. They have a very talented offensive line, although a slew of injuries to the right guard position have led to a 4th string guard, Kayode Awosika, as the starter. With Evan Brown (ankle) not practicing, it looks like Awosika will again start, which represents the one weakness along the line. RT Penei Sewell (ankle) also did not practice on Wednesday, although he was seen working with trainers on the sideline. The Jags have an above-average pass rush. Their best pass rusher is Josh Allen, who lines up on both side of the ball and could target the RT position if Sewell cannot play. They also have a strong interior pass rusher in Arden Key who could take advantage of Awosika. The big matchup advantage for the Lions comes for Amon-Ra St. Brown, who has been one of the better receivers in football this season, against the Jags secondary that is one of the worst in the league. The Jags defense is 26th in DVOA and 20th in EPA/play, but they are far better against the run (13th in DVOA) than the pass (30th).