"God's fingerprints are all over this (season) in many, many ways and many many levels," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh about this season's 14-2 record.
The Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs are still on course to play in the AFC championship game, but a bump in the road got a little bigger, at least for the Ravens.
The Ravens (14-2) will play Tennessee (10-7) in a divisional-round game Saturday evening in Baltimore. The coaching staff isn’t exactly shaking in fear in hosting the No. 6 seed Titans, but Tennessee showed over the weekend that it is more of a challenge than the other three AFC wild-card teams.
The Ravens beat the three other participants, even blowing out New England and Houston, during the regular season. In the wild-card games, those teams looked exactly the same.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looked old at times, had no downfield threats at wide receiver and the defense was soft. Houston has a problem at both quarterback and coach, and Buffalo needs a big wide receiver and a quarterback who isn’t a turnover waiting to happen.
But Tennessee was impressive.
To call the Titans’ 20-13 win against the Patriots an upset would be misleading. Tennessee had a better team on paper but had to go into Foxborough, Massachusetts, and knock down the entire mystique surrounding New England, coach Bill Belichick and Brady.
Tennessee hasn’t been as consistent or as balanced as the Ravens, who have the NFL’s top-ranked offense and No. 3 ranked defense, but the Titans are more than formidable with the No. 10 ranked offense and No. 12 defense.
They look similar to some recent Ravens playoff teams. The Titans have won six of their last eight games and had to fight hard to get into the postseason. So when they come to Baltimore, they won’t be intimidated or nervous. They’ve been in playoff survival mode for the past month.
Plus, this is a well-coached team by Mike Vrabel. Every team would prefer to be in the Ravens’ situation, having won 14 games, including 12 straight. Every team wants to get a bye.
But few teams want to play a hot opponent going into the postseason, especially the lowest seed, because that team has nothing to lose.
The Titans have a good player at The Big Three positions on offense. They have a big, physical running back in Derrick Henry, who is often mistaken as just a downhill runner. But he can get outside and cause the Ravens problems on the perimeter, where outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson doesn’t like to hold the edge and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters don’t like to tackle.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has hit his stride. After becoming the Titans’ starter in Week 7, he completed 70% of his passes for 2,747 yards and 22 touchdowns with only six interceptions in the regular season. In six of his last seven regular-season games, he had an average passer rating of 130.8.
Like the Ravens, Tennessee has a big, strong physical offensive line, but the Titans also have a big-time receiver in rookie A.J. Brown out of Mississippi, who had 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns during the regular season and does a lot of damage after the catch.
On defense, the Titans aren’t going to dazzle with a lot of big names, but Titans coordinator Dean Pees, who used to serve in the same capacity with the Ravens, has a solid group of athletic players who swarm to the ball, in particular defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and linebackers Harold Landry III and Rashaan Evans.
On the back end, safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard are both rangy and have good hands.
Overall, the Titans are a good, solid team. Once the playoff field was announced, the assumption was that the Ravens would play either the Bills or the Texans in the second round. Because of a strong defense, Buffalo played the Ravens tough earlier this season, but quarterback Josh Allen needs more time to mature.
The Ravens beat Houston by 34 points near the midway part of the season, and the Texans haven’t made a lot of progress. But now the Ravens face a team with one of the top running backs (Henry, 1,722 rushing yards) in the NFL and a quarterback on a good roll.
The Ravens were off last week, which is good because they got a chance to rest, but also a concern because they need to get a lead early and force the Titans out of their offense.
It will be interesting to watch the matchups on the interior lines, especially Ravens defensive tackles Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Domata Peko against the Titans offensive line. The intensity is always great in the postseason because both teams know it’s win or go home.
The Ravens appear to be headed to a showdown with Kansas City, and it will probably still happen. But they can’t overlook Tennessee.