NFL teams that make the playoffs often must play their best football at the end of the year. And while teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins blasted into the playoffs, it only takes one loss to derail a season.
Of all the teams to make the postseason this year, the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans looked to be the two least prepared for a significant run. Baltimore dropped four of its last five games, and if not for a late Pittsburgh Steelers’ collapse, would not have won the AFC North.
The Texans started the year as one of the best teams in the league, but a late-season defensive collapse caused Houston to lose three of its last four games and drop to the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
Both teams fizzled in the final weeks of the regular season, but now is the time for the Texans and Ravens to catch fire, and catch fire they will.
Despite falling off in the second half of the season, Houston finished the year ranked No. 7 in total defense, thanks largely to J.J. Watt, who paced the league in sacks.
The Texans also run the ball as well any team in football, and although Arian Foster wore down toward the end of the season, they will find success running the ball against Cincinnati in the Wild Card Round. The Bengals finished the season in the middle of the league in rushing defense, allowing 4.1 yards per carry and 107.2 yards per game on the ground.
Cincinnati is a young football team, and its inexperience showed last year in a 31-10 loss to the Texans in the first round of the playoffs. The Bengals are still a couple pieces away from being a Super Bowl contender, and the Texans will take advantage of their inexperience on Saturday en route to a deep playoff run.
The Ravens entered the season with lofty expectations. Joe Flacco’s offense was expected to be tailored more toward the vertical passing game, and the emergence of Torrey Smith and the presence of Ray Rice in the backfield looked to be exactly what the Ravens needed when they trounced the Bengals to start the season.
Baltimore’s offense fell off the tracks, though, culminating in the firing of Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator. Cameron underutilized Rice, and Baltimore needed to do something to awaken its fizzling offense.
Jim Caldwell replaced Cameron as offensive coordinator, and while Caldwell didn’t impress in his first couple games, he’s one of the better offensive minds in the NFL. With a few games of play-calling experience under his belt, Caldwell is poised to lead an offensive push deep into January.
This postseason will also be the last for Ray Lewis, who announced his plans to retire when the season is over (via ESPN). While it may seem a little flimsy to believe Lewis can will his team to a deep playoff run, he has been the heart of this Baltimore team for the last 17 years. The Ravens’ defense has been uncharacteristically porous this year, but Lewis’ return from injury will make a major impact on the way they play a young Colts team.
While Houston and Baltimore lost momentum toward the end of the season, both teams are in line for a playoff run. Defensive football wins games in January, and both teams will get back on track with hard-nosed wins this weekend.