Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about their win over the Cleveland Browns, capturing the first seed bye in the NFL playoffs.
Now that the Ravens have secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage in the playoffs, there should be another wish on coach John Harbaugh’s Christmas list:
Please don’t play the Kansas City Chiefs.
Of all the other AFC teams that have already earned playoff spots, Kansas City is the most likely to beat the Ravens. It’s not just because the Chiefs have beaten the Ravens in Arrowhead Stadium in each of the past two seasons, but because their offense, particularly quarterback Patrick Mahomes, causes major matchup problems.
The bottom line is that the Ravens might not be able to keep up.
The Ravens have the most complete and balanced team in the NFL. In the AFC, the Houston Texans are too inconsistent to win a title and the Buffalo Bills don’t have the experience at quarterback yet to make a serious run. The Pittsburgh Steelers or Oakland Raiders might get in, but are one-and-done teams in the postseason.
New England is the defending Super Bowl champion and coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady can’t be counted out, even though the Patriots don’t have any big-play weapons on offense. Kansas City has a high-octane offense, but the Chiefs defense is ranked No. 17 in yards allowed per game.
So the dream scenario is for the Patriots to beat the Chiefs and for the Ravens to beat the Texans in the divisional round. But if Baltimore and Kansas City both win, the Ravens might be in trouble.
Defensively, the Ravens can dominate New England, and they can play enough smashmouth football on offense to push around the Patriots defense. But the Ravens can’t dominate the Chiefs offense. They might not even be able to control them.
Kansas City is on a mission. The Chiefs have this “Unfinished Business” theme going after losing to the Patriots in the AFC championship game last season. They also have Mahomes, who is an upscale Lamar Jackson. Jackson might win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award this season, but if Mahomes hadn’t suffered a dislocated kneecap that forced him to miss two games, he might have run away with the honor for a second straight year.
Jackson and the Ravens coaching staff deserve a great deal of credit for his success this season. Jackson worked incredibly hard during the offseason to improve his fundamentals and mechanics. The coaches have been brilliant in building the offense around him.
They cater to Jackson’s breakaway running ability. They play to his strengths, allowing him to throw short to intermediate passes to his tight ends in the middle of the field. They don’t expose his weaknesses, like his lack of arm strength or his inaccuracy throwing outside the numbers.
Mahomes is a different beast.
Not only is he elusive, but he is incredibly accurate throwing anywhere on the field. He can throw left-handed, right-handed, shuffle passes and underhand tosses from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
When he is at the top of his game, there is no better quarterback in the NFL.
The Ravens secondary is the strongest unit on defense, but there are still holes on the backend. The proof is there every week, whether the Ravens are playing against New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold or the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield.
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey has had an excellent season, but there have been occasional mental lapses in his game, and even more with cornerback Marcus Peters. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr both look a step slow, and while safety Earl Thomas III has played well against the run, the Ravens have gotten very little support over the top against the pass, except when Chuck Clark is playing on the backend.
The Chiefs have a lot of offensive weapons, including receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce. Unless the Ravens blitz, they haven’t been able to get consistent pressure all season, and the Chiefs will counter with some well-designed screens.
Offensively, the Ravens have the right offense to beat Kansas City. The Chiefs can’t stop the run, allowing an average of 129.5 rushing yards per game. The Ravens can pound away with big backs Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards, but that could change if they can’t stop the Chiefs offense.
Then it becomes a high-scoring affair. It’s Mahomes versus Jackson. I’ll take Mahomes in that one. The Ravens offense isn’t built to come back from large deficits quickly. Also, in the last two games against Kansas City, the Ravens have strayed from the running game. The Ravens fear of falling behind before they even fall behind.
Maybe if the Ravens play the Chiefs, none of these scenarios play out. Maybe the Ravens secondary takes its game to another level and the outside linebackers consistently win one-on-one matchups without blitzing. Maybe the Ravens run the Chiefs into submission inside the tackles.
Every coach is looking for an advantage. For the Ravens, that would mean playing any other team in the postseason besides Kansas City.