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Monday Night Football Preview: Battling for the Bottom

The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens have a plethora of pieces in motion.

The break from work around Thanksgiving is one of the better feelings every year. You get a few days off, you get to gorge yourself on pumpkin pie, and you can start to get excited for the holiday season. It's hard not to feel happy.

Then Monday hits, and you realize you get to watch the Cleveland Browns face the Baltimore Ravens in a featured game. Happiness can't last forever, fam.

If Johnny Manziel were starting this game, it might have a bit more appeal. However, good ol' Johnny decided to be good ol' Johnny again, and we're stuck with Josh McCown and Matt Schaub. Everything you hold dear -- including Monday Night Football -- will eventually betray you.

However, because we are all degenerate fantasy football nerds, this game is still at least kind of interesting. I'm not saying it will be the second coming of Super Bowl XLII, and I'm not saying it'll be pleasurable to the eyes, but it is at least worthy of a deeper look. So, here we go.

We'll be doing this using numberFire's game projections page. This shows a projected final score, full stats breakdowns, and how things are likely to transpire relative to the spread. It's available for each game every week for premium subscribers, and it can make even the most putrid game more enjoyable.

We'll also be looking at numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team numbers being adjusted based on strength of schedule.

If you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. Prior to every play, a team has an expected number of points they will score on that drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease that, resulting in negative NEP. The sum of the fluctuations in expected points over the course of the year is NEP.

With this game, there come a bunch of questions that will help decide its outcome. Let's go through four of those to see if we can figure out how this puppy will transpire.

Is Josh McCown the Better Option for the Browns?

If it feels like we've been asking this question over and over, that's probably a sign that the Browns' quarterback situation is a mess. That said, things could be a lot worse in Cleveland.

Even though McCown hasn't been good this year, he has at least been adequate. He enters this week ranked 21st in Passing NEP per drop back of the 37 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs on the season. His 0.10 mark is just ahead of Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Again, it's not great, but it could certainly be worse.

The same is largely true with Manziel. His overall ranking of 28th in Passing NEP per drop back isn't great, but it's years beyond what he did last year. Over his 38 drop backs then, he accounted for -14.51 Passing NEP. This year, he's sitting at 3.65 Passing NEP on 142 drop backs. This doesn't mean that he's necessarily a franchise quarterback, but he has taken some really nice strides.

Based on these numbers, it seems as though McCown is the better option for the Browns right now. However, the gap between the two isn't very large. Given the Browns' record and outlook for the 2015 postseason, starting Manziel would likely be the superior option to see if his progress is legitimate or an aberration. With the other factors at play, it's hard to criticize the Browns for their decision, but it is still a bit of a letdown that Manziel won't be able to suit up on Monday.

McCown re-enters the lineup with a decent matchup against the Ravens' defense. Although they aren't quite as bad as the public has perceived them to be, the Ravens are 16th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Cleveland is 11th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, so they would appear to have a slight advantage through the air on offense.

Our projections see an up-and-down night out of McCown. He's slated to throw for 273 yards on 40 attempts (6.83 yards per attempt) with 1.33 touchdowns and 0.94 interceptions. It's certainly not the 457 yards he racked up against the Ravens earlier in the year, but it's also not the type of line that will single-handedly cost your team the game.

How Much of a Downgrade Is Matt Schaub?

Terrell Suggs. Steve Smith. Justin Forsett. Now Joe Flacco. The Ravens' medical staff finna get paid this offseason.

With Flacco out, it's Schaub who will handle the reins of the offense. If that thought didn't make you cringe, you may just be unflappable.

The last time that we saw Schaub as a starter was back in 2013, and things could have gone just a wee bit better. Schaub finished that year with -36.00 Passing NEP, the fifth worst total of any quarterback who attempted a pass play that year. He threw 14 interceptions to just 10 touchdowns and got benched for Case Keenum. Optimism should abound.

Oddly enough, prior to that season, Schaub had been a fairly decent passer. He finished at least 11th in the league in Total NEP (which takes into account both rushing and passing) every year from 2009 to 2012, and he was 15th the year before that. He has a track record of being a quality NFL quarterback, but those years appear to be very much in the rearview mirror.

At the same time, Schaub won't need to blow the doors off of defenses to equal the production of Flacco prior to his injury. He is 25th in Passing NEP per drop back of the 37 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, and the Ravens are only 23rd in Adjusted Passing NEP per play. It's not as if this offense was a model of efficiency earlier this year. It's just hard to see that improving with Schaub at the helm.

Schaub will be able to begin his foray back into starterdome with an easier task than normal. The Browns are 23rd in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. They've only picked off six passes this year, and three of those came from Peyton Manning, so Schaub may be safe for at least this week.

Our projections put Schaub in a similar territory to McCown. He's at 273 yards on 39 attempts (7.00 yards per attempt) with 1.51 touchdowns and 1.01 interceptions. Given the expectations, I'm sure Baltimore would happily accept that.

Is Javorius Allen on the Verge of a Fantasy Breakout?

The Ravens are down to at least Option B at each of their top three skill positions. With Forsett out, it's Javorius Allen's time on the chopping block. Godspeed, Buck.

With his ascension into the starting role comes the hope of fantasy owners everywhere, praying Allen can carry them to beautiful places. He figures to have the volume -- simply by default -- but can he pair that with production?

Over a small sample size, Allen has been a bit below average this year. He has turned his 64 carries into -2.91 Rushing NEP, or -0.05 Rushing NEP per play. The league's high-volume backs have averaged -0.02 Rushing NEP per carry this year, and Forsett was right there, as well. Allen also has a 40.63 Rushing Success Rate, barely above the league's average mark of 40.11 percent. Forsett finished his season at 44.37. Allen appears to be a bit of a downgrade from Forsett, but he's not awful.

The issue that Allen will face is the offense's overall efficiency. Baltimore is 27th in Adjusted NEP per play, and that's before you account for the injuries to Flacco and Forsett and fully account for the loss of Smith. If the team can't find the end zone, Allen is going to have a difficult time posting a healthy number of fantasy points.

As with Schaub, Allen gets an easier matchup in his first game as a starter. The Browns are 31st in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, having allowed seven running backs to hit at least 90 yards rushing against them this year. That'll help the offense's efficiency a bit.

Even with the matchup, our projections don't see a big breakout for Allen on Monday night. He's projected at 57 rushing yards with 0.32 touchdowns along with 3 receptions for 22 yards. A good matchup can only do so much when your offense has been decimated by injury, and that could be the story of Allen down the stretch.

Which Team Gets Closer to a High Draft Pick?

Why, yes, that is the most depressing sub-heading on the table. Thank you for asking.

That is just the reality of this game. The Browns are projected to win 4.1 games this year, and the Ravens are at 5.3. Those are two of the lower totals in the league, per numberFire's algorithms, so why not look forward to the NFL Draft?

We can get a glimpse at this by looking back at the game projections page for the most similar games to this one. The second most similar option comes from 2009 between the Seattle Seahawks (representing the Browns) and the San Francisco 49ers (representing the Ravens).

This game would most likely not be categorized as quality football. Neither team was basking in yardage, the 49ers took eight penalties, the Seahawks allowed five sacks, and there were no touchdowns in the second half. This is why these games were 89.34 percent similar.

In the end, the Seahawks took home the win on an Olindo Mare field goal as time expired. This would seem to favor the Browns in Monday night's game. What can they take away from that Seahawks' victory?

The big thing was lowering Alex Smith's efficiency (he averaged 6.89 yards per attempt) and limiting the 49ers' rushing attack to only 53 yards on 12 attempts. It wasn't because the 49ers were in grotesquely negative game script; they never trailed by more than seven points. The 49ers' offense just wasn't good enough to move the ball, and that could be in play again with the Ravens.

Ultimately, it doesn't appear the Browns' offense will be what decides this one. We basically know what we're going to get out of them. It will be whether or not Schaub, Allen and company can produce a respectable output and exploit the Browns' porous defense.

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