Analysis

Wild Card Preview: Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals

NFl Rankings

#5 LAS VEGAS RAIDERS (10-7) AT #4 CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-7), 4:30ET

Line: Bengals -5.5, Total: 49

ANALYTICAL ANALYSIS THAT EVERY SPORTS NERD NEEDS TO KNOW

Burrow vs. Blitz 

One of the important markers for a young quarterback is how well he performs against the blitz. Generally, younger QBs have a tougher time when facing extra rushers. Case in point, the five-worst qualified quarterbacks against the blitz (min. 100 dropbacks vs. blitz) this year were Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence and Lamar Jackson, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Jackson and Tagovailoa are non-rookies and Tua had only nine career starts coming into his second season.

But Joe Burrow, himself an NFL sophomore with only 10 games of starting experience from last season, led the NFL in PFF grade against the blitz (92.0). His passer rating of 122.1 ranked fourth, his completion percentage of 70% ranked fifth, and his yards per attempt (10.8) was the highest mark in the league. He was one of only two passers whose average throw against the blitz traveled at least 10 air yards (Jalen Hurts) and one of five quarterbacks who had two or fewer “turnover-worthy plays” against the blitz. 

Blitzing Burrow and the Bengals correlated with struggles for opposing defenses. In games where Burrow was blitzed at least nine times (according to Pro Football Reference), Cincinnati went 7-2 and scored an average of 32.7 points per game. In his other seven starts, the team was 3-4 while scoring an average of 21.3 points per game. In the nine games where Burrow was blitzed more heavily, the Bengals scored 30+ points six times. In the other seven games, they did that once. Interestingly, the only team that allowed Cincy to score 30+ points while blitzing fewer than nine times was this week’s opponent, the Raiders. 

In fact, Las Vegas is the least blitz-heavy team in the NFL, bringing an extra rusher on just 12.1% of opponent dropbacks – no other team is below 16%. They blitzed Burrow only twice in their Week 11 matchup, the fewest he has seen in a game this season. So was he able to have success? Not really. Despite Cincinnati dropping 32 points on Las Vegas and winning 32-13, Burrow posted some of his worst marks of the season in the game, including season-lows in passing yards (148), average air yards on completed passes (3.2), and yards per pass attempt (5.1). Despite blitzing only twice in the contest, the Raiders were able to generate pressure on more than 25% of Burrow’s attempts, thanks to a stout defensive front that ranks tied for seventh in pass-rush win rate, according to ESPN Analytics, at 44%. 

Cincinnati had just 13 points against Las Vegas through three quarters but scored 19 in the final frame to make the score much more lopsided than the game actually was, thanks in part to two Derek Carr turnovers (one fumble and one interception). And it was Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon who really led the charge in the final quarter, running for 53 yards and a score. Conversely, Burrow had only 36 passing yards in the fourth, while connecting for one score. The Raiders trailed by only three points with under 10 minutes to go in the game before Cincinnati scored the final 16 points. The Raiders sacked Burrow three times in the game and the magic number for Bengals’ opponents this season has seemingly been five; when Burrow is dropped 5+ times in a game, Cincinnati is 1-4. When Burrow faces pressure on less than 20% of his dropbacks, the team is 5-0. 

Despite the league’s lowest blitz rate, Las Vegas generates quarterback knockdowns on 11.2% of opponent dropbacks, which is third most in the league. The two teams ahead of the Raiders – Miami and Tampa Bay – are the league’s two highest blitzing teams (both are above 39% while no other team is above 34%). In fact, since Pro Football Reference started tracking blitz rate in 2018, the Raiders mark of 12.1% in 2021 is lowest of any team in any of the four seasons. 

Although Las Vegas enters the playoffs as one of the worst teams to ever qualify (its minus-65-point differential is the fourth worst by an NFL playoff team in history), they could not have picked a better matchup. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t seem very interested in tying with the Chargers in Week 18 to set up a Wild Card matchup against the Chiefs, a team that beat them by a combined 66 points in two regular season games. 

TRENDS THAT EVERY SPORTS BETTOR NEEDS TO KNOW

Road Dogs are Wild  

At many books, this game opened with the Bengals favored by 6.5 points, but it was quickly bet down to 5.5 as the sharps jumped on the early number. Thanks to our friends over at WalterFootball.com, who gave us this great trend: “if you’re thinking about fading the sharps and betting Cincinnati, keep in mind that quarterbacks who make their initial playoff start often do poorly as favorites (6-16 ATS since 2002). Derek Carr is also making his first playoff start, but road underdogs have been better in this regard (8-10 ATS).” 

If you’re looking for more reasons to back the Raiders – who haven’t won a playoff game since 2002 – consider that in the last eight years, road teams are 22-11-1 ATS (67% cover) in Wild Card games. Also, the Bengals – who haven’t won a playoff game since 1990 – are 0-7-1 ATS in the playoffs in their last eight games. 

Recent history of the Wild Card round also backs the Raiders: home favorites of seven or fewer points (like Cincinnati) are just 14-28-1 ATS (33% cover) in the Wild Card round since 2003. In the past four seasons, there have been 18 Wild Card games and the underdog has covered 15 of those 18 games (83% cover).

However, the Bengals were one of the best teams in the NFL this season when it came to covering the number, finishing at 10-7 ATS with an average margin of +4.4 points against the spread, which was third best in the league – only New England (+6.2) and Dallas (+5.9) were better. However, Cincinnati was not nearly as profitable at home (4-5 ATS, -0.4) as it was on the road (6-2 ATS, +9.7). The Raiders, meanwhile, were a losing bet this season with an 8-9 ATS record (47% cover) while finishing tied for the eighth-worst scoring margin against the spread at minus-1.9 per game. Additionally, the Raiders are coming off of an emotional overtime win that took the entire 10 minutes of the extra period and now are on a shortened week, while the Bengals rested most of their starters in Week 18. And the Raiders are 29-48 ATS (38% cover) after a win since 2009.

Since division realignment in 2002, Unders are 46-31-1 (60% cover) in Wild Card games, including 24-12 (67% cover) in the past 10 seasons. Of the last 30 Wild Card games with totals of 44 or higher, the Under is 21-8-1 (72% cover).