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Bengals-Ravens — On A Thursday Night! — Is The Most Important Game Of Week 2

Just one week into the NFL season, it’s hard to know exactly which teams will be contenders and which will be focused on their spot in the draft next spring. So it probably seems too early to be discussing playoff implications — a conversation that’s usually on hold until Thanksgiving. But in a 16-game schedule, the margins are small, and each game has a big effect on the postseason picture. Week 2 is no different — after all, the season will be 12.5 percent over after Monday night.

Thursday’s AFC North tilt between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens is one of those early season contests that could end up having real postseason consequences. In fact, our NFL Elo prediction model considers it the most important game of Week 2. (Remember when Thursday Night Football was a place to stash the NFL’s unwanted matchups?) With a win, each team’s chances of making the playoffs would jump by about 15 percentage points, while the loser would see a commensurate decline. Especially after the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers stumbled out of the gate without star RB Le’Veon Bell, the chance to jump out to a 2-0 start is a big opportunity for both Baltimore and Cincy.

Bengals-Ravens could help make or break their seasons

Week 2 games with the most total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change
BAL 59.0% +/-15.1 CIN 39.6% +/-14.8 29.9
ATL 51.1 14.1 CAR 52.4 13.9 28.1
GB 29.0 13.5 MIN 73.7 12.9 26.3
NYJ 39.0 13.3 MIA 30.3 12.9 26.2
LAC 33.3 12.4 BUF 21.8 9.8 22.2
PIT 53.8 12.1 KC 74.8 9.9 22.0
TB 35.6 11.6 PHI 82.9 8.4 20.0
JAX 64.3 10.8 NE 81.8 8.8 19.6
SEA 40.3 11.8 CHI 14.6 7.2 19.1
LAR 58.1 10.9 ARI 14.1 7.9 18.8
DEN 30.0 10.5 OAK 14.3 7.9 18.4
TEN 30.4 9.7 HOU 15.2 8.1 17.9
DET 19.1 8.7 SF 22.2 8.4 17.1
DAL 33.5 8.1 NYG 6.4 4.1 12.2
WSH 39.1 7.9 IND 9.9 4.1 12.0
NO 27.8 4.2 CLE 2.4 1.2 5.4

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN.com

The Ravens come into the matchup off of a 44-point demolition of the Buffalo Bills, which propelled Baltimore from 12th to eighth in our Elo rankings. With the Bills starting the comically ineffective Nathan Peterman at QB, it’s difficult to judge how much we really learned about the Ravens in the blowout. But it had to be encouraging for Baltimore fans to see Joe Flacco play well, regardless of the opponent. At home against Buffalo, Flacco generated 119 more adjusted net yards than a generic backup-level quarterback would have (aka yards above backup QB, or YABQ), which ranked sixth among all signal-callers in Week 1 — behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers.

In terms of YABQ, this game also represented the third-best that Flacco has enjoyed since Week 3 of the 2015 season, which helps underscore how bad Flacco has been in recent years. For instance, last season the Ravens had the third-worst quarterbacking production of any team in the league, with Flacco’s individual metrics in a three-year tailspin. For a team that featured one of the NFL’s best defenses last season, any spark that Flacco and the offense can provide could go a long way toward sending Baltimore back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. And in their first test against the overmatched Bills, Flacco and the revamped Ravens receiving corps passed with flying colors.

A somewhat similar narrative is unfolding in Cincinnati. With much-maligned QB Andy Dalton embarking on his eighth season as the Bengals’ starter (and coach Marvin Lewis back for an astonishing 16th year on the team’s sidelines), Cincy went into Indianapolis and beat Andrew Luck and the Colts thanks to solid passing and rushing, plus timely defensive plays late in the game. Aside from maybe Flacco, few quarterbacks in the league needed to start the season on the right foot more than Dalton, who infamously has never won a playoff game during his time in the Queen City.

A win over Baltimore on Thursday won’t change that — perhaps surprisingly, Dalton has beaten the Ravens more often than not anyway — but it would help quiet the doubts that Dalton’s best days are behind him. Since he finished third in the league in YABQ in 2015 (despite suffering a season-ending injury that December), he slipped to 11th in 2016 and 21st in 2017, and the Bengals didn’t make the playoffs either year. With a defense that projects to be mediocre at best, Cincinnati needs Dalton to reverse that slide in order to have any shot at the postseason — and probably to have any chance at salvaging the Dalton/Lewis era.

The great irony of the Bengals is that their quarterbacking has always been just good enough to come up short. While the Ravens have won two Super Bowls behind a couple of QBs (Flacco and Trent Dilfer) who were below-average passers for their careers, Cincinnati has consistently had average-to-good passing over the years, aside from a few notable exceptions. Just look back at the Bengals’ history of primary quarterbacks: 40 of their 47 seasons since 1972 have been led by five quarterbacks — Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Jeff Blake, Carson Palmer and Dalton. Although none is in the Hall of Fame (Anderson’s case is a point of contentious debate), each rates as average or better in his career according to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s advanced passing index.

That’s why, from the 1970 AFL-NFL merger until the present day, no team has gotten more seasons of “competent” (above-backup level) quarterbacking than the Bengals have:

The Bengals always get competent QB play — but no rings

Most seasons with positive yards above backup quarterback (YABQ) for NFL franchises, 1970-2017

Franchise Seasons above backup level since 1970 Total YABQ Super Bowls
1 Washington 42 23,642 3
1 Cincinnati 42 23,128 0
3 Dallas 41 28,383 5
3 Miami 41 25,480 2
3 Pittsburgh 41 18,754 6
6 Minnesota 40 23,118 0
7 Denver 39 22,648 3
8 San Francisco 38 31,028 5
8 New England 38 25,478 5
8 Philadelphia 38 16,004 1

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

And yet, even though the teams around them on that list have won multiple Super Bowls, Cincinnati has yet to break through with even one win of its own.

History says that’s unlikely to change this season. But it is fair to say that Dalton’s duel with Flacco this week has taken on unexpected importance for an early season game. The winner will ensure itself a quick boost in playoff chances — and an extra helping of redemption after the way both teams have played the past few seasons.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Last week, we relaunched our NFL Elo prediction interactive, which you can use to track every team in the league in the race for the Super Bowl. Along with it, we also brought back a popular feature from last season — a prediction game that lets you test your football smarts against our model (and thousands of fellow readers). Here were Elo’s best and worst picks against the field in Week 1:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 1

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 1 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET points
OAK 50% LAR 68% LAR 33, OAK 13 +11.7
ARI 61 ARI 55 WSH 24, ARI 6 +4.8
GB 63 GB 71 GB 24, CHI 23 +3.3
BAL 64 BAL 72 BAL 47, BUF 3 +2.9
JAX 58 JAX 62 JAX 20, NYG 15 +0.7
SEA 54 SEA 52 DEN 27, SEA 24 +0.0
PIT 79 PIT 76 PIT 21, CLE 21 +0.0
LAC 56 LAC 55 KC 38, LAC 28 -0.6
CAR 60 CAR 60 CAR 16, DAL 8 -1.8
IND 50 IND 50 CIN 34, IND 23 -1.9
DET 71 DET 71 NYJ 48, DET 17 -2.4
MIN 76 MIN 71 MIN 24, SF 16 -5.3
NE 86 NE 77 NE 27, HOU 20 -6.3
PHI 65 PHI 57 PHI 18, ATL 12 -9.6
MIA 53 TEN 55 MIA 27, TEN 20 -10.3
NO 74 NO 82 TB 48, NO 40 -13.5

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Overall, it was a pretty impressive opening week for Elo — in fact, our model cleaned up nicely, beating readers by 28.3 total points on average. This is especially surprising because Week 1 would seem to be the moment of the season when human pickers have the greatest edge on the algorithm. In our NFL preview, I noted that Elo can get caught a little flat-footed early in the season because it doesn’t know about all the roster and coaching moves that transpired over the summer. Theoretically, that should have made it as unprepared for Week 1 as Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions … but unlike the Lions, Elo proved the naysayers (i.e., me) wrong.

Elo’s biggest win was in not dismissing the Buccaneers completely. While our readers gave the home Saints a better than 80 percent chance of winning, the model was more cautious, and it ended up paying off when Tampa (and backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick) dropped 48 points on New Orleans. Elo also picked up credit for calling the Dolphins’ protracted win over the Titans and for once again showing faith in the Eagles (just like in last year’s playoffs).

If the readers did have a crowning moment in Week 1, though, it was for calling the Rams’ big win over the Raiders in Oakland on Monday night. Elo thought the game was a pick ’em, but the readers knew better, giving L.A. a 68 percent chance of spoiling Jon Gruden’s return to the sidelines.

Thanks to everyone who played on opening week, and remember that it’s not too late to start, even if you missed Week 1. So be sure to get your picks in now!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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