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Monday Night Football Preview: A Tale of Two Seasons

After both making the postseason in 2014, the Ravens and the Cardinals have taken drastically different paths in 2015. Can the Ravens get back on the right track?

If this were 2014, we'd be pretty jacked up about this contest. The Arizona Cardinals finished the year 11-5 despite Carson Palmer's season-ending injury. The Baltimore Ravens made it to the divisional round of the playoffs after knocking out the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round.

It's safe to say things have been a bit different this year.

Now, the Cardinals are one of the best teams in the league and leading numberFire's power rankings by a pretty hefty margin. The Ravens occupy almost the exact opposite end of the spectrum, sitting 24th in the power rankings with a 1-5 record. After a trip across the country, this is obviously shaping up to be an evenly-contested battle. Obviously.

Still, there are plenty of questions to be asked surrounding this game. We'll try to answer four of them using numberFire's game profile. This breaks down what our computers see as the final score, the stats for each team, and a list of similar games that can help us predict what will happen in the contest. This breakdown is available for each and every game on the NFL schedule for premium subscribers, and it's a better way to waste time at work than watching people square dance to 50 Cent songs. Though I'll admit it's a close race.

We'll also be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). In case you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. On each play, there's an expected number of points that the team will score on the drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard run on 3rd and 2) will increase those expected points. A negative play (such as a three-yard run on 3rd and 4) will decrease it. NEP is just the sum of the expected points added or subtracted throughout the year and lumped into one stat, with the team NEP totals being adjusted based on the strength of the opponent.

Now, with all of that aside, let's dive into this matchup and see if it's actually shaping up to be as lopsided as it appears initially.

Can Carson Palmer Keep Rolling?

Can you imagine what this Cardinals team could have done if Palmer were healthy last year?

Thankfully, Arizona fans can live out this fantasy in 2015, as Palmer is living up to the billing he brought out of college. But where did the crazy production and efficiency he has shown come from?

Palmer's performance this year isn't as shocking as you may think. He finished last year ranked sixth in Passing NEP per drop back out of all quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs. He was playing at a borderline-elite level when he was healthy, and he has simply kept up that pace this year.

Entering Week 7, Palmer had wiggled his way up to fourth in Passing NEP per drop back out of the 36 quarterbacks with at least 75 drop backs. He has added 68.28 Passing NEP on only 201 drop backs this year. If he were in a high-volume passing offense, Palmer would be a fixture in the MVP discussion. So, yes, this success certainly seems sustainable.

numberFire's projections see that efficiency translating into a big fantasy output Monday night. They see him racking up 274 passing yards on 35 attempts (7.83 yards per attempt) with 2.08 touchdowns and 0.72 interceptions. Against a Baltimore defense that ranks 18th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, that shouldn't be a shock. Nor should it be a shock if Palmer's hot start continues far past just this game.

Which Cardinals Running Back Deserves the Most Looks?

While Palmer has resulted in much fantasy exultation, the Arizona back field has been the subject of ire, frustration, and dry heaving aplenty. Can't have it all.

So, if we were the ones sorting out the carries based on efficiency, how would we do it?

In all honesty, there really isn't a bad option; the Cardinals have been a great rushing team overall on the year. They rank fifth in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, and all three of their top backs are producing above average from an efficiency standpoint.

Let's start with the most surprising and most productive of the group in Chris Johnson. Despite possessing nearly every red flag for a running back (age, preseason injury concerns, timeshare for carries), Johnson is currently sixth in Rushing NEP and 10th in Rushing NEP per carry out of 44 running backs with at least 40 carries. He wasn't terrible last year, finishing 26th in Rushing NEP per carry of the 43 backs with at least 100 carries, but he certainly didn't achieve this level of production.

Speaking of last year, that's something Andre Ellington will want to forget. There was not a single player in the league who had a worse Rushing NEP than Ellington at -28.34. Flush it. 

The volume has gone away, but he has turned his 16 carries into 3.23 Rushing NEP. You simply can't count on him from a fantasy perspective because of the volume, and the small sample size has to make you wonder whether he has truly turned a corner, but this is at least a step forward.

Then there's the touchdown machine in David Johnson. Obviously, all of those touchdowns are going to jack up the team's expected points, and it has made Johnson look extremely valuable thus far. On 21 carries, he has 4.59 Rushing NEP. Add to that his 13.28 Reception NEP and how huge he has been in kickoff returns, and you start to see how good this dude has looked. 

And it's not just the touchdowns that have inflated Johnson's NEP. He also has a 57.1 percent Rushing Success Rate. The league average for regular-down backs this year is 40.9 percent, and Chris Johnson and Ellington are at 43 percent. That leads you to believe that David Johnson's success is more than just a flash in the pan, even with the small sample size. No matter how good the other Johnson is, this one at least deserves additional opportunity. 

The easiest conclusion from all of this is that if one of these guys can claim a firm hold on the top spot in the rotation, he'll be fantasy gold. This appears to just be a team with a stout rushing offense in which any of them can succeed. So, right now, you can have some faith in Chris Johnson, but track the snap and touch distribution closely as the upside in this offense is immense.

Which Unit Has Hurt the Ravens Most?

You know all those good vibes we've been feeling while talking about the Cardinals? Wave goodbye as they float down the drain because they aren't coming back in this segment.

When you go from being one game from the conference championship to one win through six games, you'd assume something has gone catastrophically wrong. With the Ravens, you need not look further than their passing game.

Entering Week 7, there were 36 quarterbacks who had dropped back at least 75 times. Of those, Joe Flacco ranked 27th in Passing NEP per drop back. This put him behind Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, and Sam Bradford. He is operating at a level that is very much below replacement level.

However, it's hard to lump all of this on Flacco's shoulders. While his results have been atrocious, it's also important to remember to whom he's throwing. When your only viable receiving option is a 5'9", 185-pound 36-year-old, you're bound to have some issues. It's just surprising how profound those issues have been.

As recently as last year, Flacco was an adequate starter. He finished 11th in Passing NEP per drop back of the signal callers with at least 200 drop backs. The team did lose Torrey Smith, who was eighth in Reception NEP per target of the receivers with at least 80 targets, but is that the difference between 11th and 27th?

One argument you could make is that Flacco has been forced to throw from behind, which would naturally lead to a decrease in efficiency. That, then, would put additional blame on the defense. While it is true that Flacco has been operating from behind (76 percent of his attempts have come while trailing), the defense has been more mediocre than bad.

Through the first six weeks of the season, the Ravens sit 15th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. This includes rankings of 11th against the rush and 18th against the pass. These are significantly worse than what we're used to with a Ravens defense, but it's certainly not the full reason they're 1-5. It's the simultaneous combination of Flacco's slip with the defense's dip that has taken the team to its current depths.

Can the Ravens Keep it Close?

With the Cardinals favored by nine points, it's pretty clear Vegas doesn't foresee this as being a barn-burner. But, there are situations in which Baltimore could at least keep it close, if not win. What do they need to do to keep this thing interesting?

To find this out, we can look back to the game projections page for the most similar games since the turn of the century. This takes into account the spread, team quality, and other factors to show us which games had a similar vibe to this one heading in. When we look at this section, the most similar game -- at a 90.11 percent match -- actually has the Ravens winning.

In this contest, the San Diego Chargers (representing the Cardinals) were 13-point favorites, hosting the Oakland Raiders (who are obviously the Ravens). Despite what appeared to be a surefire Chargers victory, the Raiders blew their doorhandles off for a 28-13 victory. This came after they opened up a 21-3 lead at the half and were able to hang on from there.

How'd the Raiders do it? Basically, they pounded the Chargers into submission via the ground game. They racked up 251 yards rushing on 52 carries. It's not the volume there, but rather the efficiency, with the Raiders averaging 4.83 yards per carry. The team's quarterback, Jason Campbell, only aired it out a grand total of 16 times. That might be something off of which the Ravens can build.

Despite all of the offense's struggles this year, Justin Forsett has still been fairly reliable. He is 17th in Rushing NEP per carry out of 44 backs with at least 40 attempts. He is also ninth in Rushing Success Rate. When your passing offense is as abysmal as the Ravens' right now, it makes sense to run the ball until you're forced to the air.

The one issue here is that Arizona's rushing defense is pretty darn good. They currently sit fifth in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, and they've twice held their opponent to fewer than 60 rushing yards this year. They're not foolproof, though, as they have had some down days this year. If they have one Monday night, that could be the window the Ravens need to at least maintain pace.

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