submitted by Nikhil Mehta
The Baltimore Ravens took care of business in Cincinnati on Sunday, securing a playoff spot and a first round matchup against the Tennessee Titans.
With a potential matchups with the Chiefs and the Steelers looming after that, this Ravens postseason should be called the Ravens Revenge Tour.
The Ravens have had to run this type of gauntlet before. In 2013, the Ravens beat the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, and New England Patriots to reach the Super Bowl. Each of those teams had a history of beating the Ravens, especially in the playoffs. Inspired by Ray Lewis’s last ride, Baltimore took on all comers and fought their way to a Super Bowl win. This year, they may face a similar set of challenges. To hoist the Lombardi Trophy once more, the Ravens will have to overcome those teams that have stymied them the most.
The Steelers, Titans, and Chiefs represent the challenges faced by the Ravens in the past two years. Playing and beating those three teams in the playoffs would represent the Ravens overcoming their adversity and exorcising their football demons.
Play Strong and Leave the Past Behind
The Ravens’ loss to the Titans in the AFC Divisional Round last year stung. The Ravens were 14-2, having rattled off 10 straight wins to close out the season. But against the Titans, everything seemed to go wrong, ending in a 28-12 loss that left the once-high-flying team disappointed and demoralized. Lamar Jackson and other players spoke frankly about the impact of that loss following the game, vowing to use it as motivation coming into this season. The defining image of that loss is Titans star RB Derrick Henry delivering a brutal stiff arm to former Ravens FS Earl Thomas, spinning around the Pro Bowl safety as Henry ran past him.
That play will serve as a reminder that the Ravens will have to play strong, physically and mentally, to take on the Titans in the playoffs.
The Ravens did a better job corralling Henry in Week 11 this season, but by the end of the game, the defense, with defensive run-stoppers DE Brandon Williams and DT Calais Campbell out due to injury, seemed absolutely exhausted. According to Pro Football Reference, the Ravens have missed 131 tackles this season, the second-most in the NFL, and the Titans took advantage of that to win the game. Titans WR A.J. Brown broke four tackles on his way to a go-ahead TD with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter, and Henry burst through the Ravens defense for a 29-yard score to win the game in overtime.
Simply put, the Titans don’t just run the ball well; they bully defenses, overpowering them physically and sucking the will out of them mentally to build and keep leads. The Ravens have to be psychologically and physically tough to beat the Titans and move past last year’s crushing loss, finally taking revenge on a team that humiliated and mocked them when expectations were at their highest.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Future of the NFL
(KC hosts the lowest remaining seed after this week. Assuming the Ravens are the only AFC Wild Card team to win this weekend, they would head to KC for the Divisional round. If Indy and/or Cleveland pull off upsets, they would go to Arrowhead.)
The saying goes, if you want to be the king, you have to beat the king. The Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions and the clear frontrunner to win the AFC. If Jackson and the Ravens want to win a Super Bowl anytime soon, they’ll have to beat QB Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs at some point. Mahomes is just 25 and signed a 10-year, $503 million contract this offseason. Jackson is 23, and will likely sign a similar big-money, long-term deal in the near future. Mahomes won the NFL MVP award in 2018, and Jackson won it the year after. The Chiefs have the best passing offense in the NFL, and the Ravens have the best rushing offense in the NFL. The rivalry between the Chiefs and the Ravens, and their MVP quarterbacks, is set to define the NFL for the next decade.
But, it’s only a true rivalry if both teams can get their shots in, and so far, the Chiefs have had the Ravens’ number. The Chiefs are 3-0 against the Ravens since Jackson took over the starting job, with Mahomes averaging almost 380 passing yards in those games. Just like teams have to construct entirely new defensive gameplans for Jackson, the Ravens must come up with a new approach for Mahomes. The Chiefs struggled in several games this season, which could offer some valuable insights and game tape for the Ravens defense. Teams like the Falcons were able to gameplan against Chiefs HC Andy Reid’s play-calling tendencies while disguising their blitzes and coverages to surprise Mahomes, forcing him into tough throws and bad decisions. Against Mahomes, there is almost no margin for error. The Ravens will need a near-perfect gameplan and execution to top the Chiefs in the playoffs. The Chiefs cannot be the Ravens’ kryptonite; otherwise, the Ravens have almost no chance at winning the AFC and earning a Super Bowl berth. Winning a game against the Chiefs this postseason would not just avenge the past three years of losses, but it would quickly put to rest the belief that the Chiefs are the AFC’s untouchable team.
Kings of the North
(If the Ravens beat Tennessee, the Colts would need to defeat the Bills, with the Steelers defeating the Browns, for this matchup to take place in Divisional Weekend. More likely, if Baltimore and Pittsburgh meet this postseason, it will be for the AFC Championship.)
The Steelers beat the Ravens twice this year on their way to winning the AFC North, but those games did little to convince anyone of the Steelers’ superiority. The first loss was a result of an uncharacteristically sloppy game by Jackson, who threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles. Despite the turnovers, the Ravens only lost by four points, rushing for 265 yards against the stout Steelers defense. The second Ravens-Steelers game was heavily impacted by COVID, leaving Baltimore down 16 players, including Jackson and several other key contributors on both sides of the ball. The depleted Ravens still kept it close, exposing enough flaws in the undefeated Steelers team for them to lose the next three games. Still, the Steelers won the division, in large part because they bested the Ravens twice.
Despite a 13-13 record against the Steelers since John Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008, the Ravens have only beat the Steelers once out of three matchups in the playoffs over the same span. The Steelers have done a particularly good job against Jackson, forcing seven turnovers in his two starts. Beating their biggest rival in the playoffs would show that the Ravens are past the ball security woes and COVID struggles that plagued them early in the season. Even more than that, they would avenge both losses to the Steelers this season that all but robbed the Ravens of a chance at winning the division, and assert their dominance over the future of the AFC North in the process.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise stated.