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Monday Night Football Preview: Two Games for One!

Monday Night Football Preview


Line: Browns -3, Total: 41


Concerning Pattern  

One thing the Raiders have become known for over the past couple of years is a fast start followed by a slow finish – the opposite of when you want to peak during a season. In 2019, the Raiders started 6-4 before losing five of their final six games to finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs. Last year, they got out to a 6-3 start before losing five of their last seven to finish 8-8 and again miss the playoffs. This season, Las Vegas started 3-0, including impressive wins over AFC North contenders Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and went on to a 5-2 record after seven games before now losing five of their past six to drop to their current mark of 6-7.

The Raiders have quietly been one of the most futile franchises in the NFL over the past 20 years. While teams like the Lions, Bengals, and Browns catch most of the flak for their inability to win in the postseason (though the Browns finally got the monkey off their back last year), the Raiders have actually appeared in the fewest playoff games in the last 15 seasons – one. Although they are one of five teams who have not won a playoff game in that span, Cincinnati (six), Washington (four), Miami (two), and Detroit (two) have each at least reached the dance in multiple seasons. But since the Raiders lost to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl 37, they have only reached the postseason once (2016) and were bounced in the Wild Card round by the Houston Texans that year.

It’s not looking as though they are going to break through this season, either, as they are currently last in the AFC West as the only team with a record below .500. According to FiveThirtyEight, their current playoff chances sit at just 5%, which is the lowest mark among teams with at least six wins. Even if they’re able to win on Monday, that number goes up to just 16%, meaning that to reach the playoffs they will have to do something that they haven’t been able to do the last five years -- win games at the end of the season.


Keeping up with COVID

This line has been all over the place due to the COVID issues with the Browns, including being as high as Raiders -6 when it looked like Nick Mullens would start for the Browns. However, the postponement will allow the Browns to get some of their players off of the COVID list, though quarterback Baker Mayfield is still a question mark. Despite that question, oddsmakers seem to think that there’s a decent chance for him to suit up because the Browns are now favored in the game. This is a line that will bear monitoring throughout the day as we see which Browns players are ruled eligible and ineligible for the contest. Because of all the uncertainty, we will forgo posting the bet/money percentages and move on to some of the trends.

Both of these teams have been struggling against the spread as each of them has failed to cover in five in their past six. The Browns are 1-4 ATS in their past five home games and the Raiders are 3-6 ATS in their last nine road games. For the season, Cleveland is 4-8-1 ATS and Las Vegas is 5-8 ATS. The Raiders are 6-0 ATS on the road vs. good rushing teams (4.5+ yards per carry) since 2019, while the Browns are 0-6 ATS at home versus subpar defenses (350+ YPG allowed) in the past two seasons. As far as Totals go, the Over is 13-4 when Las Vegas is the underdog since 2020. However, for all NFL teams in the past 10 seasons coming off a road blowout loss by 21+ points (like the Raiders fresh off a 48-9 defeat in KC) the Under is a profitable 54-22 (71%).


Defense and Discipline

With all of the Browns’ COVID issues and the difficulty in projecting who will even be on the field Monday night, we’ll continue to focus on the Raiders – whose defense has been an abject disaster over the past five games. Las Vegas has allowed 30+ points in four of the past five contests, with the Taylor Heinicke-led Washington Football Team being the only team failing to reach that number. As we wrote about on Thursday, the Raiders have been the cure for Patrick Mahomes ails, as he carved the team up for 41 and 48 points in their two meetings over the past five weeks. Joe Burrow’s Bengals put up 32 and Dak Prescott’s Cowboys scored 33, although the Raiders defeated Dallas.

Vegas currently allows the second-most opponent points per game at 27.7, only ahead of the Jets (30.5). They’re surrendering those points despite allowing 356.6 yards per game, which is 20th in the league. All the other Bottom-5 scoring defenses are also Bottom-10 in yards allowed. So, why the chasm for the Raiders? Third-down and fourth-down defense, red zone defense, and penalties.

Las Vegas allows its opponents to score touchdowns on 77.1% of red-zone drives, which is the worst mark in the league (no other team is at or above 75%). Opponents are also converting on 43.5% of their third-down attempts (27th) and 63.2% of their fourth-down attempts (25th). Along with Detroit and Miami, they are the only three teams who are in the bottom 25% of the league in both third and fourth-down defense. If you add red-zone to that equation, it’s only Las Vegas and Detroit who are among the eight worst teams in all three categories. They also allow opponents to score 11.2 points in the fourth quarter, the only NFL team allowing double-digits in the final period. So, when it matters most -- third and fourth down, red-zone and fourth quarter -- that’s when their defense is at its worst.

Then, there’s the penalty problem. Following Week 15, the Raiders became the most-penalized team in terms of both penalties called against (104) and penalty yards (924), passing the Cowboys in both categories. These penalties have been especially harmful on defense, where the Raiders are tied for the league lead in roughing the passer penalties (6), second in unnecessary roughness fouls (8), and tied for third in offsides (6) and defensive holding (11). Vegas opponents gain 2.3 first downs per game via penalty, which is tied for second-worst (Washington is worse at 2.4).

Adding an inability to get off the field, an inability to keep points off the board, and an inability to keep flags from flying gives the Raiders have a nasty combination that has greatly contributed to their recent slide that has almost closed the door on the postseason, even with five games left to play.


Line: Vikings -6.5, Total: 44.5


Playoff Implications

While the Chicago Bears are in the midst of a rebuild with a rookie quarterback and a likely coaching change – so likely, in fact, that assistant coaches in Chicago are already looking for new jobs – their NFC North rivals are right in the thick of the playoff race. This game has massive importance to the Vikings, who according to FiveThirtyEight currently have a 29% chance to reach the postseason. If they can beat the Bears, that number goes up to 43%, while a loss would put those hopes on life-support (9% chance). Since Mike Zimmer became the head coach in 2014, Minnesota has not missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, which they would be in danger of doing after missing the dance in 2020.

The bad news is that Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins has struggled against the Bears in his Vikings career. He was 2-0 against them as a starter for Washington – both times winning in Chicago – but has only won once in five tries since coming to the Twin Cities. In those five starts, Cousins has thrown for seven touchdowns while committing five turnovers (four interceptions and a lost fumble) and taken 16 sacks (3.2 per game).

Bears head coach Matt Nagy (for now) has won five of the six games against the Vikings since becoming the head coach prior to the 2018 season with a point differential of +31 in those contests. The good news for Minnesota fans is that Cousins had his best start in Chicago as a Viking in 2020, winning the game 19-13 and posting a passer rating above 100 – the only game in which he’s done that as a Viking against the Bears. If you add in his starts with Washington, Cousins is actually 3-2 at Soldier Field for his career. In the three wins, he’s thrown for at least 270 yards and posted a passer rating above 100 in each game, while taking four total sacks. In the two losses, he’s thrown for fewer than 270 yards in both, posted a passer rating below 100, and taken eight sacks.

It’s a big game for Cousins, in front of a national audience, in a spot where he has traditionally struggled. Cousins is 1-9 on Monday Night Football in his career, throwing 14 touchdown passes while turning the ball over nine times (seven INTs and two lost fumbles). That’s the bad news. The good news? The game we discussed above where the Vikings beat the Bears 19-13 and Cousins posted a 100+ passer rating came on their most recent appearance in the ESPN-televised game. Cousins may be 0-9 on Monday Night Football in all other venues, but he’s 1-0 on Monday in Soldier Field for his career.


Bad News Bears

It’s been a rough year for the 4-9 Bears and that includes their performance versus the number. They have failed to cover seven of their last eight games, four straight at home, and six of the last seven as an underdog. The only real positive trend for Chicago is that it is 6-2 ATS against Minnesota over the past eight meetings. Minnesota, meanwhile, has covered four of its past six overall. But the Vikings always play down to their competition; in their last seven games against teams with a losing record, they failed to cover in all seven. They are also just 2-9 ATS in their last 11 games as a favorite. The Over has hit four straight times for Minnesota (56+ points scored in each of the four) and the Over is also 12-3 since 2019 when the Vikings face an opponent forcing one turnover or less per game.

Action Network is reporting some sharp action on the Bears, but the bets (69%) and the money (86%) heavily favor the Vikings. COVID is starting to really affect the Bears, as we’ll dive into below, and that is affecting the line in this game. While Minnesota opened around a 3.5 or 4-point favorite, the line has continued to move in the team’s favor. As with all the games being played on Monday and Tuesday night, the lines will need to be monitored as the active and inactive lists are released and COVID tests are conducted.


Target Hog

Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who burst onto the scene as a rookie last year achieving Second-Team All-Pro, has continued his incredible play as an NFL sophomore in 2021. He’s 68 yards shy of breaking Odell Beckham Jr.'s NFL record for receiving yards by a player in his first two seasons (OBJ had 2,755 between 2014-15 for the Giants) and Jefferson has four more games to catch him. His 1,288 receiving yards are second in the NFL to the Rams’ Cooper Kupp (1,489 yards) and his 61 catches for first down are tied with Packers’ star Davante Adams for third (Kupp has 70 and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill has 69).

Jefferson is also making a case to be the premier deep threat in the NFL. He leads the NFL in targeted air yards percentage at 44.2%, according to Next Gen Stats, and he does the majority of his damage before the ball actually gets into his hands. Among the 20 players who have at least 100 targets this season (entering Week 15), he’s the only one averaging 10+ yards BEFORE the catch. His average depth of target is 12.2 yards and despite taking deeper shots to Jefferson, Cousins’ passer rating when targeting him is 117.8, while throwing one interception. Among players with 100 targets, only Matthew Stafford’s 121.0 rating targeting Cooper Kupp is higher than the Cousins-to-Jefferson connection. However, Stafford has thrown four interceptions while targeting Kupp.

Jefferson will now face a Chicago secondary that has been obliterated by COVID, as the entire starting unit is currently on the COVID list and unlikely to play. Chicago has one healthy cornerback on the roster and that’s 2020 fifth-round pick Kindle Vildor, who has mostly been a backup and will now be tasked with trying to contain one of the best wide receivers in the NFL -- a pass catcher who has gone over 100 yards receiving in both of his career games against the Bears, including an eight-catch, 135-yard performance on Monday Night at Soldier Field last season. Vildor’s name is likely not one that most fans will be familiar with, but they will be after tomorrow night. And that’s probably bad news for the second-year corner.