NFL Playoff Picture: 7 Reasons the Baltimore Ravens Are the Team to Beat

Alex TrottaContributor IIJanuary 5, 2012

NFL Playoff Picture: 7 Reasons the Baltimore Ravens Are the Team to Beat

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    The Baltimore Ravens own the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, the best finish they've had under head coach John Harbaugh. 

    As the only team in the league other than the Green Bay Packers to sweep its division, Baltimore is poised to take a run at the Super Bowl. 

    Right now, the Ravens' Vegas odds are 8/1, but here are seven reasons why they should be the team to fear in the playoffs.

High Seeding

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    The Ravens will be hosting a playoff game for the first time in John Harbaugh’s tenure, and this is the perfect year for them to have that luxury, as they are 8-0 at home this season.  Should the Patriots fall in their division game next week, the Super Bowl could go through Baltimore.

    Play-by-play commentator for WBAL Gerry Sandusky said, "There is a chemistry that you see once every decade or so, between the Ravens and their fans at M&T Bank Stadium."

    For the last few seasons, the Ravens have had to be road warriors, and they have faltered because of it.  Now, without that burden, they will be able to overwhelm teams in their house.

A Chip on Their Shoulder

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    In recent years, the Ravens have been a close second to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North, having been knocked out of the playoffs twice in three years by their division foes.

    But, this year hopes to be different for the Ravens.

    If Pittsburgh and Cincinnati each win their wild-card matchups, NFL fans will be treated to a third installment of one of the best rivalries in the league, between the Steelers and Ravens. 

    Baltimore swept the regular-season matchups, and for the first time, the Ravens would have home-field advantage in part three of this bitter rivalry.

    Despite finishing first in the division, they still have to prove they are for real by winning in the playoffs.  Coming up short three years in a row will motivate the team to finally push through to the Super Bowl.

Experience

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    Though every postseason loss stings, it provides a wealth of insight on how to get better as a team.  The Ravens know what the postseason is like, having made it there four out of the last five years. 

    In that span, Baltimore has gone 4-4; this group has learned the hard way what works in the playoffs and what does not.

    For the most part, the player personnel has only improved, and another year together has allowed the team to gel.

    Baltimore’s defense is led by four of the toughest veterans in the league.  Ray Lewis (36 years old) led the team in tackles despite missing four games with turf toe.  Ed Reed (33) has stayed healthy, after two seasons in which he did not play a full 16 games.  And, providing tons of pressure is Terrell Suggs (29) on the outside and Haloti Ngata (27) on the inside. 

    All four of these guys are Pro Bowlers

    One big addition to the team is Vonta Leach (30), who has been putting in excellent fullback play.  He has made his only career Pro Bowls in the last two years, which has led to the great season performance of…

Ray Rice

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    There's been a very simple trend this season: If you give Ray Rice the football, you win games. 

    All four of the Ravens' losses this year came when Rice’s running ability was not heavily utilized.  In those four losses, his rushing attempts totaled 13, 8, 5 and 10 yards.

    As it is right now, Rice is the most important halfback in the postseason.  The two-time Pro Bowler out of Rutgers led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,068 and scored 15 touchdowns this year.  He was also the second leading rusher in the league with 1,364 yards. 

    As long as the offense is run through Ray Rice, Baltimore will be able to control the pace of the game and keep the best quarterbacks off the field.

    But, his receiving ability out of the backfield is what makes him an elite back.  His 704 receiving yards was second in the league for backs.  And these are not just over-the-middle, dump-off passes. The Ravens execute the screen pass very well, and Rice will sometimes streak down the field to catch a mismatch against a linebacker.

    John Harbaugh knows how important little Ray is to his team’s success and will ride his talents to Indianapolis.  Another factor in Ray's success is...

Two Young Talented Tight Ends

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    Second-year players Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta have shared the load at tight end this year and have been key contributors to both the running and passing game. 

    Dickson and Pitta were drafted together in 2010 and have roomed together in training camp.  They have the third highest combined receiving totals for two tight ends in the league, behind only the Patriots (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) and the Texans (Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen).

    The dual-tight-end package has worked very well in the past for New England, and Baltimore has tailored the formation to fit its personnel.  Similar to Houston, Baltimore’s offense leans on the running game so both big men will sometimes be left in to block opening holes for Rice.

    As receivers, both 6'4" players are red-zone threats and have made up for the lack of a small quick slot receiver in the offense.  This dual-tight-end set is a mismatch for linebackers and defensive backs alike and something every opponent will have to account for. 

    Plus, Pitta and Joe Flacco are sporting identical Fu Manchu moustaches, and the two have been in sync as of late.

Defense

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    The defense has always been the forefront of this organization, and this year is no different.  Baltimore is third in the league in total defense and tied for third in the league in sacks with 48.

    If they can’t get their opponents to give the ball away, they take it. The Ravens have 21 forced fumbles, three of which led to defensive touchdowns.

    To win the Super Bowl, the Ravens will likely go through two of the three best quarterbacks in the league.  The most important part of the Ravens' game plan for those games will be finding ways to get Terrell Suggs to put them on their backs and force fumbles—something he does well, finishing the season fifth in the league with 14 sacks and adding seven forced fumbles. 

    Even if he does not get the sack, he will still disrupt the quarterback and take up blockers to allow his teammates to get in there.  This will be even more important than Ray Lewis’ tackling and Ed Reed’s coverage, and the defense will be up to the challenge because…

The Ravens Play Their Best Against Tougher Opponents

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    The combined records of the teams who have beaten the Ravens is a below-average 29-35.  And only one loss this year was against a winning team, the Tennessee Titans who finished 9-7.

    While that does not sound like the kind of thing a team contending for a Super Bowl wants to hear, it will actually end up helping them.  Here is a better-sounding fact: The Ravens have not lost to a single team that is currently in the playoffs.

    In the postseason, every team is a good team, and to gain an advantage, John Harbaugh will look to score quickly and build on that lead by continuing to run the ball.  The Ravens will not underestimate their opponents, and they will be going for the jugular from the first snap.