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The Ravens will be bidding for a playoff spot Sunday when they play the Bengals in Cincinnati, and could end up the No. 5, No. 6 or No. 7 seed.
It really doesn’t make that much difference for a first-round playoff game except if the Ravens have to travel to Buffalo, which is the second-best team in the American Football Conference behind the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Ravens are the best of the remaining bunch. They are good and sound in most games, but is that good enough to get them into the Super Bowl, which will be played in Tampa Bay on Feb. 7?
Things would have to fall almost perfectly for that to happen, especially for a team with a run-dominated offense that struggles coming from behind. The Ravens, though, aren’t looking into the future yet because they have to beat the Bengals.
Regardless, here are my rankings for the top possible AFC playoff teams heading into the final weekend of the regular season:
Much has been made about the Chiefs not playing up to expectations in the last couple of weeks, but Kansas City was bored. The playoffs will provide them with an adrenaline rush.
Kansas City has some weaknesses on defense especially stopping the run, but the Chiefs’ No. 1-ranked offense dominates and controls the pace of games. They have so many big-play performers on offense in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, receivers Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins and All-World tight end Travis Kelce.
What other teams has a backup running back the caliber of Le’Veon Bell?
The Chiefs have great speed, which makes them a tough matchup for the Ravens. But it’s not just on the offense, but on defense. When the two teams played in September, Chiefs players in the secondary talked a lot to Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, telling him, “Where is all that speed? You ain’t that fast.”
Add Andy Reid, one of the best head coaches in the NFL, along with the Chiefs being the defending champs and playing at home, they are going to be a tough out.
No. 2 Buffalo (12-3)
The Bills are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL
If Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen had been as accurate as he is now the Bills would have beaten the Ravens in their matchup last December. In 2020, Allen has completed 378 of 547 passes for 4,320 yard and 34 touchdowns with a quarterback ring of 106.4.
The Bills have the No. 2 passing offense in the NFL paced by receivers Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley and they’ll be getting speedster John Brown back soon. The Bills struggle somewhat in running the ball, but Allen can do damage with his legs.
The Bills have also struggled in stopping the run at times (122.9 per game) but they are still physical with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, A.J. Klein and secondary players Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Taron Johnson.
Another edge for Buffalo is returner Andre Roberts, who is averaging 30 yards on 32 kickoff returns.
If Buffalo finishes as the No. 2 seed, it will also get home-field advantage for possibly two games. No teams want to travel to Buffalo in January. Heck, the Bills don’t even want to play there but they get paid.
No. 3 Baltimore (10-5)
The Ravens have been bumped from the playoffs after one game during the past two seasons, but that experience should help.
The Ravens have been on an offensive tear during the past four games and have been in a playoff mode ever since losing to Pittsburgh on Dec. 2. The sense of urgency during the last month should serve them well heading into the postseason.
The running game is the best in the league (177.8 per game), which is a tribute to Jackson, who opens the entire offense when he is gaining big chunks of yardage. Halfbacks Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins can attack a defense with some speed on the perimeter but also power inside the tackles.
Defensively, the Ravens run defense should be at its best because both linemen Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell are healthy and the secondary should be much improved after being without injured starters and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters in recent games.
The major issue with the Ravens, beside being unable to come back from 10 points behind, is that they have fallen apart in playoff games. It’s not just the players, but poor decision making by the coaches as well. Previous quick exits in the postseason give the Ravens some incentive.
Ravens’ fans would love for them to play the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs, but not me.
The Ravens dominated Pittsburgh twice in games they should have won, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has yet to lose to Jackson. In two career games, Tomlin’s Steelers have sacked Jackson nine times and picked off five passes. Nah, there has got to be an easier route in the postseason.
Pittsburgh plays with the same mental toughness as the Ravens. Physically, the Steelers don’t get much push on the offensive line and they virtually have no running game. The receivers consistently drop passes but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns) holds this offense together.
Even when opposing teams figured out the Steelers short passing game Roethlisberger still found a way for the Steelers to win last week against Indianapolis. Defensively, the Steelers have been hit hard by injuries, but they are still ranked No. 2 overall and No. 8 against the rush. If they can take a lead into the fourth period the Steelers can pressure a quarterback led by outside linebacker T.J. Watt’s 15 sacks.
Teams don’t fear Pittsburgh’s like they did in the past. But somehow this team, with all its deficiencies, still won 12 regular-season games. Tomlin has to be doing something right.
No. 5. Titans (10-5)
It’s at this point where rating these teams becomes virtually a coin flip.
The Titans are solid because of their offense and coach Mike Vrabel. But even with Vrabel, the Titans are erratic. They do have Derrick Henry (1,777 yards rushing, 344 carries) at running back, who might be the most impactful player in the NFL outside of a quarterback. Henry makes Ryan Tannehill (3,603 passing yards, 32 touchdowns) effective, especially in the play-action passing game.
But defensively, the Titans struggle. They are ranked No. 29 overall, 19th against the rush and 28th versus the pass. If the Titans can’t control the time of possession, they will probably lose because the defense is so inept.
Vrabel, though, is interesting to watch on the sidelines. A former linebacker under coach Bill Belichick in New England, he is good at scheming and learned a lot of tricks from Belichick. Opposing teams will beat Vrabel, but he will never beat himself.
No. 6 Cleveland (10-5)
I have become a Browns fan because I feel sorry for them.
In a year when they finally have a winning season and became a playoff-caliber team, there are few fans in the stands. And then last week the team got hit hard by the coronavirus.
If nothing else, the Browns are entertaining. Quarterback Baker Mayfield bounced back from a weak showing in 2019 and threw for 3,367 yards this season. The Browns have a strong running game and they are physical on both the offensive and defensive lines.
The team’s biggest problem is that once you get past their front four on defense there is nothing there. Cleveland has no playmakers on the back end, which is why they lost in that shootout to the Ravens several weeks ago. But at least they are better than a year ago. They got that rooting section, the Dawg Pound, in Cleveland excited again instead of just being a bunch of dogs.
No. 7 and No. 8. Miami (10-5) or Indianapolis (10-5)
Take your pick for whichever team you think is better. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, but there is no one to lead these two teams.
The Colts have veteran Philip Rivers who has thrown for 4,005 yards, but he is known for not getting it done in the playoffs, and the Colts defense is so soft, especially in the second half when it wears down.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatick, who will be sidelined against Buffalo because a positive COVID-19 test, pulled out a miracle for the Dolphins last week against the Las Vegas Raiders. But he has been so streaky throughout his QB through his 17-year career. As for Tua Tagovailoa, who Fitzpatrick replaced last week, he has some elusiveness but not a big-league arm.