NFL Playoff Previews: Chiefs Versus Ravens

Posted: January 9, 2011 in NFL
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See this article with photos on Bleacher Report

The Baltimore Ravens don’t get enough respect around the league.  This team went 12-4 this season, and were it not for a close loss at home to division rival Pittsburgh in Week 13, they would be sitting home with a bye.  They lost four games this season by a combined 16 points, and the only bad loss was in Week 2 in Cincinnati, who, at that time, looked like a playoff contender and not the trainwreck they later became.  Baltimore’s other losses?  By 3 points in overtime in New England, by 5 points in Atlanta, and by 3 points against the Steelers.  Baltimore in eminently capable of beating any of those teams on the road and winning the Superbowl, when all is said and done.

The Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, have been in first place in the AFC West from Week 1.  They held off another late-season push from San Diego to reach a surprising 10 wins and a division title.  KC has the best rushing attack in the league, and they play much better at home (7-1) than on the road (3-5).  Quarterback Matt Cassell has been up and down all year, but mostly up lately.  Defensively, they have been solid, but it always helps a defense look better than it really is when your offense can run the ball and control the clock as well as they have.

So, do the Chiefs have a chance of doing what Seattle did yesterday and upsetting a genuine contender or will the Raven roll into Pittsburgh next week?

Home Field Advantage?

The Chiefs went 7-1 at Arrowhead this season, the only loss being a bad one to the Raiders last week where they were gashed on the ground and got blown out.  Kansas City really didn’t have anything to play for, other than seeding, so the letdown might be understandable, but with a team like Baltimore and Ray Rice coming to town, it could also be a bad omen of things to come.

Surprisingly, KC scores only a couple more points per game at home than they do on the road, but it’s on the defensive side where they really pick it up.  Take out the 31 points they allowed the Raiders last week, and the Chiefs give up about 12 points per game to their opponents in Kansas City.  On the road, they give up more than double that amount.

Baltimore was 5-3 on the road this year, with all three losses by 5 points or less to New England, Atlanta and Cincinnati.  They also beat the Jets at the Meadowlands in Week 1 and won in Pittsburgh in Week 4.  The Ravens only score about 21 per game on the road, but they only allow about 17 per game to their hosts, and have only given up more than 20 on the road three times, topping out at 28 points in Houston.

Baltimore is one of the rare few teams in the league that can play anyone, anywhere in virtually any type of game and have an excellent chance of pulling out a victory.  While the Chiefs have the great home record and defensive stats behind it, their schedule hasn’t exactly been brutal.  They did not play a single playoff team at home this season.

Case in point(s)

This game is very likely not going to be a Seahawks-Saints style shootout.  I think, like the Colts-Jets game yesterday, a low-scoring defensive struggle.  Kansas City did manage to score 30 or more points five times this season, going 4-1 in those games.  Baltimore, despite its occasional offensive struggles, also scored over 30 points five times, going 5-0 in those games.  First team to 30 wins.  Of course, it’s probably more likely they won’t get to 30 points combined.

The Ravens have only allowed one team to score over 30 on them all season, and that was Buffalo of all teams, who put up 34 in a losing effort to Baltimore back in Week 7.  Kansas City allowed opponents to score 30 four times, all losses, to Houston, Denver, San Diego and Oakland, including an embarrassing 49 given up to Denver and a 31-0 shutout to San Diego in a game that had major playoff implications at that time.

The Chiefs have had a great season, but they haven’t really been tested.  They only played two playoff teams all season, going 1-1, losing to the Colts and winning in Seattle.  They have yet to suit up against any of the truly elite teams in the league.  Today’s game will be their first taste of championship caliber football.

The Ravens schedule consisted of six playoff teams, and they went 3-3, beating the Jets, Steelers and Saints, while losing to the Patriots, Falcons and Steelers.  Their biggest loss all season was by five points.  The past two years, Baltimore has played five post-season games, all on the road, winning three of them and reaching an AFC Title Game two years ago.  They will not be intimidated by going into Kansas City even the slightest.

The guys under center

Neither one of these teams boast a terribly prolific passing game.  Baltimore is 20th in the league and the Chiefs are 30th.  Both teams really like to pound the ball, so that mitigates how much production is going to come from the passing game, anyway.

Both Joe Flacco and Matt Cassell have faced their share of criticism at different times this season, but they ended up as the 12th and 13th rated quarterbacks out of all 79 who took a snap this year.  Both guys put up over 3,000 yards passing, both guys had 25 or more touchdowns, both guys had 10 or fewer interceptions and both guys had passer ratings of 93 or above.  Actually, their seasons look pretty similar, statistically.

The difference here is that this will be Cassell’s first post-season experience as the go-to starter.  Sure, he sat on the bench watching Tom Brady in the past, but playing in the playoffs is a far cry from watching.  Flacco, on the other hand, has the previous experience and was tested much more this season with a schedule infinitely more difficult than Cassell’s.

The Ravens pass defense has been questionable, at times, this season, but that may well be a consequence of having a great rush defense.  If teams can’t run on you, then they will pass.  The Chiefs pass defense is slightly better statistically, but can be vulnerable.  Flacco has many more weapons in the passing game at his disposal than does Cassell.  Other than Dwayne Bowe and occasionally Jamal Charles out of the backfield, the cupboard in pretty bare in KC.

The Ravens’ skill position guys are littered with big names: Boldin, Mason, Heap, Rice, Houshmandzadeh, Stallworth, Magahee, etc., etc.  It will be tough for KC to keep them all in check.

Can anyone stop the run?

This has all the earmarks of a game that will be determined by who runs the ball better.  KC’s combo of Charles and Thomas Jones put up 2,400 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, good for the number one rushing attack in the league.  Baltimore’s defense is fifth best in the league against the run, however, and is more than capable of holding that vaunted Chief’s running game in check.  They only allowed six running plays of 20 or more yards all season, and only five rushing touchdowns.

The Ravens are in the middle of the league in rushing, finishing 14th, but they are a much more balanced team than Kansas City.  The Chiefs defense gave up 10 running plays over 20 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.  If Ray Rice gets 20-25 carries, he’ll likely get over 100 yards and Baltimore will have an excellent chance of controlling this game.

With both teams’ propensity to run the ball, this game will be shortened dramatically, and we could be in for a low-scoring affair full of time-eating drives.

Who will win?

Kansas City has had a great year, improving from a 4-12 also-ran to a 10-6 division champion.  Still, they were relatively untested against the best in the league.  Baltimore, on the other hand, has played the very best the NFL has to offer, winning some and losing some very close games.  They don’t get blown out, and can beat you with their passing game, their running game and their defense.

I expect Baltimore to win this game fairly easily.  They can keep KC from putting up massive yards on the ground and force Matt Cassell to beat them through the air.  Look for two or more turnovers from Cassell, a big day from Ray Rice, and just enough of a passing game from Flacco to keep everyone on the Chiefs defense honest.

The Chiefs are a good team that benefited from a weak schedule and a mediocre division to get to this point.  Baltimore is a real, live Superbowl-caliber team.  That difference will show through today, and Kansas City will see exactly how far they have left to go to be a genuine threat in the AFC.

Final Score:  Ravens 24, Chiefs 13

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