SharpClarke's Best Divisional Round Bet: HOU @ BAL

Jan 19, 2024
SharpClarke's Best Divisional Round Bet: HOU @ BAL

It's the playoffs. All eyes are on a handful of games, and opinions shaped the market fairly early on this week. We have not seen too much line movement since Monday, and it is tough to find an edge. So I recommend sizing your bets accordingly —it's never a good idea to over-leverage into a market that has been shaped into place by winning bettors. But in these times, I don't mind taking a position on a game that I perceive as a truly split game in terms of market movement. That applies to the Texans-Ravens game, which has seen significant action on Baltimore at -9 and yet stayed under the key number of -10. That means there are strong opinions on both sides. While I don't have a "strong" opinion on this game, I have taken a position on the Texans. Let's dive in.

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Matchup Breakdown

HOU offense v. BAL defense

I am a C.J. Stroud believer. I was already a believer last week, and he rewarded my confidence by dominating the elite Cleveland defense. There are some differences here. First, this game is on the road, and there could be a weather impact on his great downfield passing attack. That's a valid concern. Second, the Ravens' defense, unlike the Browns', has actually shut down some really good offenses this year without the help of injury or weather. Their best relative defensive performances have come against the Lions, Seahawks, 49ers, and Dolphins. All of those teams finished top-10 in offensive EPA/play this season. But all of these teams are led by quarterbacks who, without trying to sound insulting, are what I call "scheme merchants." Jared Goff, Brock Purdy, and Tua Tagovailoa are the poster children for quarterbacks whose success stems primarily from the quality of their offensive scheme and skill players, as opposed to their ability to elevate in difficult circumstances.

The Ravens have not played against Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, or Lamar Jackson (obviously), who are the types of quarterback who can elevate their game in tough spots. They did not perform particularly well either time they faced Joe Burrow, or against Matthew Stafford, who put up 31 points against them. So I have enough doubt about their ability to shut down offenses that thrive on strong quarterback play (as opposed to scheme and weapons) that I could see Stroud having success, even in difficult circumstances. I also liked seeing the Texans' offense be more aggressive last week, and I would expect that to continue, given how well it worked out against the Browns. Finally, this is a big spread. That means plenty of end-game situations where the spread is in play will involve the Texans trailing by two scores. If the Ravens switch to a prevent defense in those situations to keep the clock running, I have confidence in this passing attack to deliver and close the gap. Ultimately, I expect Stroud's incredible rookie growth arc to continue. He has never shrunk in the biggest moments, and I would not expect that here.

BAL offense v. HOU defense

Of course, Lamar Jackson is also very good. I do not put a ton of stock into his small sample size of playoff struggles. The truth is that he has not been part of an offense that was designed to do well in the toughest spots; until this season when Todd Monken took over. But with a heavier emphasis on downfield passing, Jackson might be more susceptible to weather impact. He has put together some of his best games when he was able to capitalize on downfield coverage mistakes, like against the Rams and Dolphins. Their run game is not quite as effective without Keaton Mitchell, and the Texans have been stout against the run for a while now. If the Ravens don't get creative with their run scheme, I think they will struggle, putting everything on Jackson's arm. That's a lot to ask with such a big spread.

The Texans' defense has been dealing with injuries all year and is filled with young players at key spots. They have taken a while to get into their groove and get healthy, but recently have been mixing up coverages more than they had been previously. Demeco Ryans has always been a great defensive coach, and it has been fun to see him deploy his players in creative ways in recent weeks. They stymied Joe Flacco last week, and I expect them to at least fluster Jackson a few times in this one. They will need to get pressure because Jackson is elite when he has time in the pocket. But if they can get pressure, Jackson is prone to make mistakes. Again, with such a big number to cover, he will have to either avoid mistakes or make enough splash plays to overcome them. I have my doubts.

Market Evaluation

My simulations project a median outcome of BAL by 7.5 points in this game. The market opened higher, around 9 or 9.5. Even with a high-profile release on BAL -9, the spread has stayed under 10. To me, that indicates that there is likely some meaningful money on both sides of the game. I don't see a huge edge between 7.5 and 9.5, because the 9 is not a very common number, but it's enough for me to find value and play the spread. My difference from the market likely stems from a lower rating on the Ravens, who did not impress me as much as most in their win against San Francisco. If you bet Baltimore at this price, I think you are buying them at the top of their market price. This doesn't mean it's wrong, of course. But it gives me comfort playing the underdog.

Best Bet

While I don't have the same level of confidence I had in the Packers last week, I do like the Texans and will take a position on the spread.

HOU +9.5 (-110) (FanDuel, Circa, Ceasars, Bet365, BetMGM, and if you have Betonline, you can currently get -108)

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