Scouting the Ravens' three potential playoff opponents

Jarret Johnson is "a little sick of football" right now — at least when it comes to watching on TV.

With the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and Beef O'Brady's Bowl and the TicketCity Bowl dominating the TV in recent weeks, the Ravens linebacker can't stand watching all the bowl games (he is, however, pumped to watch his alma mater, Alabama, play in the BCS Championship Game).

But like many Ravens (and their fans, too), Johnson is ready for some football this weekend.

"Playoff time," he said of the NFL's Wild-Card Round. "You better believe I will be watching it."

As the Ravens rest on their sofas during the opening round of the NFL playoffs, one of the perks of earning the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, they will be eagerly watching on Saturday and maybe Sunday to learn their Divisional Round opponent for Jan. 15 at M&T Bank Stadium.

If the 10-6 Houston Texans defeat the 9-7 Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, the Ravens will host the Texans. If not, the winner of Sunday's game between the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 8-8 Denver Broncos is their opponent. The Ravens have been studying up on all three teams.

"I don't care who we play," fullback Vonta Leach said this week. "They're going to have to come here. They're going to have to defeat us on our own turf and that's going to be hard to do."

Added safety Haruki Nakamura, "Obviously we want to know who we are playing but there's not that much anxiety. For us, we've already played two out of the three teams and we feel pretty confident that no matter who we play, we would win. So we're really excited."

Here's a look at how the Ravens match up against their three potential opponents for Round 2:

Denver Broncos (8-8)

How they rank: pass offense (31st), rush offense (1st), pass defense (18th), rush defense (22nd)

What the Ravens have going for them:

The Baltimore defense loves to make opposing offenses one-dimensional by taking away the run and forcing teams to pass exclusively (see their wins over the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Jets). Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is 7-4 as a starter, but his passing ability is a hot-button topic. This week, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs took an unprovoked shot at him.

"He's alright. Let's be honest, I can put up the numbers he was [putting up]," Suggs told ESPN.

If the Ravens stuff Tebow, running back Willis McGahee and the Broncos' rush attack — and if their offense gets off to a fast start — they can feast on the Broncos' 31st-ranked pass offense.

What will cause the Ravens problems:

Baltimore's offensive tackles, Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, have struggled against speed rushers at times, and Denver has one of the NFL's top pass-rushing duos in defensive end Elvis Dumervil and outside linebacker Von Miller, who led all AFC rookies with 11.5 sacks this season.

"Obviously, he's a damn good player," Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said of Miller.

When Denver won seven of eight games before finishing the season with a three-game losing streak, the Broncos defense was stout, giving Tebow an opportunity for his late-game magic.

Looking into the crystal ball:

Should the Ravens play the Broncos, there's little reason to think they wouldn't be able to shut down Tebow and the Denver offense. If Joe Flacco and the offense avoid turnovers and put 20 or more points on the board, the Ravens will easily advance to the AFC Championship Game.

Houston Texans (10-6)

How they rank: pass offense (18th), rush offense (2nd), pass defense (3rd), rush defense (4th)

What the Ravens have going for them:

History, for one. The Ravens are 5-0 all-time against the Texans, including their 29-14 victory back in Week 6. In that win, the Ravens trailed, 14-13, before pulling away in the second half. Flacco said that familiarity will help if they play the Texans (or the Steelers, for that matter).

But the Texans have been forced to change their offensive identity since that October game. They lost starting quarterback Matt Schaub for the season (and his backup, Matt Leinart, too).

Rookie T.J. Yates, a fifth-round draft pick, has played in six games, winning three of them, while completing 61.2 percent of his passes for 949 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. The Baltimore defense has fared well against inexperienced quarterbacks in recent seasons.

What will cause the Ravens problems:

The Houston defense was one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season. The Texans ranked 30th in total defense a season ago. In 2011, they ranked second. And after the Ravens scored 29 points against them in Week 6, the Texans have allowed an average of 15.4 points per game.

Houston is sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks, and its pass rush could knock Flacco out of rhythm.

And then there is Arian Foster, who rushed for 919 yards in his final nine games. Foster will put the Ravens' second-ranked rush defense to the test, and he is one of the league's most dangerous pass-catchers out of the backfield. The Texans would likely try to exploit the Ravens linebackers.

"Their running game, if you look at Flacco and [Atlanta Falcons quarterback] Matt Ryan in their rookie seasons [in 2008], they had very dominant running games," Nakamura said when asked about Yates. "And that's what they have with Arian Foster and [Foster's backup, Ben] Tate."

Looking into the crystal ball:

Count on another tight game if the Texans return to M&T Bank Stadium, but if the Ravens limit the damage done by Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson, their chances to win will be good.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

How they rank: pass offense (10th), rush offense (14th), pass defense (1st), rush defense (8th)

What the Ravens have going for them:

The Ravens swept the season series against the Steelers, beating them up, 35-7, in the opener then stunning them on the road, 23-20, with Torrey Smith's last-minute touchdown catch. They have never beaten the Steelers in the playoffs, but they are confident they can buck that trend.

That effort would be aided by injuries on Pittsburgh's side. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been hobbled by an ankle injury, as has center Maurkice Pouncey, who may miss Sunday's game. The Steelers also lost top running back Rashard Mendenhall to a season-ending knee injury.

But no matter who is the lineup, the Ravens expect a dogfight if they play the Steelers again.

"Just another normal Pittsburgh-Baltimore game: ground and pound," Yanda said. "It will be two good teams, two physical teams going at it, just like the first two games were."

What will cause the Ravens problems:

One of the biggest reasons why the Ravens swept the Steelers was that they protected Flacco, which helped them win the turnover battle in both games. The Steelers totaled just four sacks in those wins. Without a blur of black and yellow in his face, Flacco gave the ball away just once.

However, it's hard to forget about the back-breaking turnovers that linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu have forced against Flacco in years past.

And the Ravens defense will have to be at its best to contain Roethlisberger, who has one of the NFL's most productive pass-catching tandems in receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.

"They've still got Big Ben," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "That's one of the best competitors I've ever seen play the game."

Looking into the crystal ball:

Home-field advantage will be huge for the Ravens if the Steelers come here next weekend, but go ahead and flip a coin when trying to pick the winner. If the Ravens get after Roethlisberger like they did in Week 1, they should win. If the pass rush disappears again, their season ends Jan. 15.



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