Two weeks ago, we knew that the Baltimore Ravens were in the playoffs with an 11-4 record.
But the Baltimore faithful hoped for a Pittsburgh loss that would allow the Ravens to leapfrog the Steelers and win the AFC North division title as well as a No. 2 seed and first-round bye in the playoffs. Alas, such wishes did not come to fruition—the hapless Cleveland Browns played like they were trying to get Eric Mangini fired, and indeed accomplished their goal against the Steelers that day. And yes, better seeding in the playoffs is always a good thing.
However, ultimately, if you're in the tournament, you've got a chance to win it—play good football, don't turn it over and catch some lucky breaks...who knows, you could be headed for the Super Bowl. Even for the wild-card teams, all they have to do is win four games and they are champions. It's playoff time—this is why we are football fans.
And whatever you think of how the playoff system is structured, if your team is the better one, it should win regardless of location—at least in theory.
Of course, a big part of winning games is drawing favorable matchups and, if you're lucky, avoiding the teams with which you match up poorly. With the field set and the playoffs about to begin, let's look at how the Baltimore Ravens match up with the five other AFC playoff teams, in descending order of seeding.
1. New England Patriots (14-2)
Any way you slice it, the Patriots are the odds-on favorite to take home the Super Bowl entering the playoffs this year.
Patriots QB Tom Brady is playing at an MVP level, and has gone an unbelievable 319 consecutive passes without throwing an interception, breaking Bernie Kosar's old record of 308. Sure, there has been an element of luck about the streak, but most of it has to do with how exquisitely Brady has played down the stretch of the NFL season. The Patriots again have a well-oiled machine offensively—the catch is that they have gotten better down the stretch rather than showing vulnerability there, as they did in 2007. Brady is also 27-1 at home since 2007, including the playoffs, where the Patriots will be playing all of their games as the No. 1 seed.
Of course, Patriots and Ravens fans both remember the "1" in the 27-1 home record. The Ravens handed the Patriots a 33-14 beat-down in Foxboro in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs last season, with a Ray Rice-led ground attack that took over the game. The issue was never really in doubt after halftime; it was simply a matter of closing the door.
And by the way, Brady's streak began after he threw two interceptions against the Ravens this year in Foxboro, a game where the Patriots needed overtime to beat Baltimore. The Ravens controlled the game for the first three quarters, but in agonizingly familiar fashion for Ravens fans, the team managed to blow a fourth-quarter lead and lost on a field goal. Since that game, the Patriots have been winning convincingly, but it is clear that the Ravens match up well with with New England because they are able to take advantage of a relatively weak New England run defense and have shown the ability to slow down the Patriots offense for long stretches.
The Patriots are prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl, but the most dangerous team they could face very well might be the Ravens. I'd still pick New England to win the game, but it'd be very, very close.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
I'm still sick thinking about the Steelers game at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday Night Football—Troy Polamalu's strip sack was pretty much a horror story relived; I have an equally painful memory of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combining for a strip-sack TD in Flacco's rookie year.
But personal feelings aside, whenever two great rivals meet with major playoff implications at stake, it's always a huge game. And in the playoffs? Forget it. Predicting this game borders on impossible, and while this year the games have bucked the trend, in the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry I generally pick the home team.
This season, the best defense in the NFL is probably the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are able to make teams one-dimensional, pass-only teams offensively. They are allowing the fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL.
However, the Steelers are in the bottom half of the league in terms of passing yards allowed. This is partially because opposing teams simply don't try to establish the run game against the Steelers, but partially because the Steelers have shown vulnerabilities in the defensive secondary. This is masked to an extent by the Steelers' strong pass rush, but it can be exploited with a quick-hitting passing game, which is exactly what the Ravens tried to use in both matchups against the Black and Gold this season (and exactly what the Patriots use in all of their game plans, which is why the Patriots are such a tough matchup for the Steelers).
As far as the Steeler offense, Mike Wallace is the big X-factor. If he gets loose, it could be a long day for the Ravens on defense. The Ravens did a good job containing Rashard Mendenhall in both games this season, and I expect that to continue.
As I mentioned, the general rule is, take the home team. Of course, on game day, if it comes, I'll convince myself otherwise, but that's why I make my pick for this game a week or so out.
3. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
In case you were curious, the last time the Colts won a Super Bowl, it was as the No. 3 seed. However, this Colts team does not appear to be as good as Colts teams of the past, and it is certainly not as deep, with major contributors like Dallas Clark and Austin Collie already on injured reserve. Still, QB Peyton Manning is the trigger man for this team, and as long as that is the case, the Colts have a chance to do some damage in the playoffs.
On paper, almost everything about this matchup would seem to favor the Ravens. They are more talented, just as experienced, deeper and healthier. The Colts have defensive players like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, around whom their defense is built, but they are a speed defense that has traditionally struggled against the run, which is still the strength of the Ravens offense. And with so many offensive playmakers out for the year, the Colts offense appears more susceptible to getting locked down if the Ravens game-plan to take away Reggie Wayne.
The problem? Baltimore is a miserable 0-6 against Indianapolis in the last six meetings, and did I mention that Peyton Manning is still the trigger man for this team?
Hard to go against history that strong; the Colts just seem to have the Ravens' number, for whatever reason. This is the team that the Ravens really do not want to see.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
The Chiefs are without doubt the surprise team in the AFC playoff field, pulling a "worst-to-first" transition within the AFC West to lock up a division title at 10-6.
Unlike in the NFC, where the West division winner was a pathetic 7-9, the Chiefs very much earned the right to be here, and made it to the dance based primarily on the strength of their ground attack and a resurgent defense, though the Matt Cassel-Dwayne Bowe connection did fantasy owners many favors down the stretch. The engine of this team is very much the two-headed monster of Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles.
However, the Ravens would appear to match up well with the Chiefs on paper. Though they were gashed on the ground on a couple different occasions earlier in the season—notably by Cleveland Browns RB Peyton Hillis, who had 140-plus yards rushing in the first meeting between the Ravens and Browns—the Ravens have started to play more consistent run defense as the season went on and finished the season ranked fifth in rush defense.
While the Ravens have been leakier at the back end, the Chiefs lack another big-time target in the passing game to complement Bowe, and if the Ravens can stop the Chiefs run game, Kansas City's play action oriented passing attack will not be nearly as effective. And while the Chiefs defense has not been BAD, it has not been especially GOOD in either phase.
Furthermore, the revelation that Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will be leaving for the same role at the University of Florida next season poses a potential distraction for the Chiefs. Finally, there is the big kicker: The Chiefs have not appeared in the playoffs for quite some time, whereas the Ravens are 3-2 in the playoffs over the past two seasons, with all five games being played on the road.
Of course, the Ravens will not play any other teams if they can't get past the Chiefs this weekend, but I write this article almost anticipating that they will do so. The Ravens are a better team than the Chiefs on most days, and that shows in their stronger record and greater experience.
5. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
This is not the latest version of Madden, so while you may choose to have the Ravens play themselves in the game, you'll have to settle for virtual reality with respect to this matchup.
6. New York Jets (11-5)
Ah, the Jets. Here is a team that got off to a strong 9-2 start going into the game with the Patriots on Monday Night Football, only to get eviscerated by a score of 45-3 and back into the playoffs by closing the season with a 2-3 record.
None of that matters now—just like everybody else, the Jets are 0-0, but they certainly do not qualify as a "hot" team going into the postseason dance. ESPN's Accuscore gives the Jets a 3 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, which as we all know is what the Jets promised they would do throughout the season. Not great odds.
If the Ravens were to face the Jets in the playoffs, it would be in Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, after both wild card teams survived the gauntlet of two straight road games, including the second, against teams coming off a bye week.
Still, it's hard to pick against the Ravens in a hypothetical matchup between these two squads. For starters, the Ravens won the head-to-head meeting between the two teams, although that was back in Week 1, and both teams have changed significantly since then. The Jets, though, seem to have lost some of their swagger—on which their team was largely built by quintessential player coach Rex Ryan—and QB Mark Sanchez appears to have regressed somewhat. Ravens QB Joe Flacco, however, appears to have remained relatively constant and represents much less of a liability. With Ed Reed lurking in the secondary—especially given the hot streak he's been on the last two weeks, with four interceptions in two games—it's hard to believe Sanchez wouldn't make a critical error, as he tends to force the ball down the field at times.
Summary of the Ravens' path to the AFC title game:
-@KC Wild Card Round
-@NE if IND beats NYJ; @PIT if NYJ beats IND divisional round
The Ravens would then play the last remaining AFC team if they were to win both games, likely the Patriots or Steelers.