Upset Watch appears every Thursday for ESPN Insider, as Football Outsiders uses a proprietary formula to forecast the expected point spread of each game based on current DVOA ratings ( explained here) and, early in the season, our DVOA projections. Each week we highlight the most likely upset on a game with a line over three points, plus an additional game where a significant underdog has a strong chance to cover.
Last week, we noted that Week 12 was a slate of very close games. This week, instead, we have a slate of extremely accurate point spreads. The formula we use to project point spreads at Football Outsiders comes up with a spread within one point of the actual spread for 10 of this week's 16 games, which is unheard of. That makes picking an upset of the week nearly impossible, but here are the most likely candidates (three-point spread or greater):
• Arizona (+3.5) at Philadelphia
• Atlanta (+3.5) vs. Buffalo (in Toronto)
• Kansas City (+4) vs. Denver
• Pittsburgh (+3) at Baltimore
• Tennessee (+4.5) at Indianapolis
For this week's Upset Watch, we'll go with a divisional rivalry that almost always results in close games, and this week gets a nationally televised holiday showcase. It could even decide the sixth playoff spot in the AFC.
Upset Watch: Pittsburgh (+3) at Baltimore
It sure seems like Pittsburgh and Baltimore always play games that are decided by three points, doesn't it? Actually, that's not hyperbole; it's really true. Nine of the past 13 games between Pittsburgh and Baltimore have been decided by only three points, and only one of them has been decided by more than 10 points. Those three-point games include a 19-16 Steelers win in Pittsburgh back in Week 7.
One of the driving storylines of this game is that these are two old-school running-and-defense teams that have been awful running the ball this year; the game is likely to be won by whichever team will just give up on the run and put the game in the hands of its quarterback. The Ravens rank 31st in rushing DVOA, ahead of only Jacksonville. The Steelers are just ahead of them at 30th, although they have been better (19th) since Le'Veon Bell played his first game in Week 4. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they are best running the ball to the right, where guard David DeCastro has been strong in his second year, but the Ravens' run defense is strongest against runs to the right.
Pittsburgh has particularly struggled running the ball on first down, and that includes Bell, who averages just 3.5 yards per carry on first downs. But when the Steelers put the ball in the air, they have a huge advantage on first downs. Only San Diego has a higher passing DVOA on first down, and the Baltimore defense is an awful 27th against the pass on first down. Big passing gains on first down are important because the Ravens have the advantage on second and third down. The Ravens actually have the best defense in the league on second down while the Steelers' offense ranks 11th. On third down, the Ravens' defense is 11th and the Steelers' offense is 24th.