While no road to the Super Bowl is ever an easy one, the Baltimore Ravens (12-4) might have caught a big break last Sunday, when they learned their path through the NFL playoffs would start in Kansas City, against a 10-6 Chiefs team, winners of the AFC West.
In Week 17, Baltimore escaped with their 12th win of the season, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 13-7 at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens defense was able to hold off a last-second drive put together by QB Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati offense, avoiding embarrassment and a second-straight season sweep by the Bengals.
However, a win is a win in any sport, and the Ravens victory over Cincinnati propelled Baltimore to their third-straight playoff appearance under head coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco.
Before Week 17’s slate of games was underway, many fans in Baltimore feared the Ravens playoff berth would take them straight to Indianapolis to face the Colts in the Wild Card round—a place where Baltimore has yet to win a game.
Thanks in part to the Oakland Raiders 31-10 victory over the Chiefs and an Indianapolis win against Tennessee, the Ravens will travel west to Arrowhead Stadium for a 1 p.m. Sunday matchup with Kansas City.
The Ravens have defeated the Chiefs in their past two attempts by a combined total of 58-34, with the last meeting resulting in a 38-24 Ravens victory in Baltimore.
Kansas City does hold a 3-2 all-time record against the Ravens, outscoring the AFC North Goliaths 113-100 in the process.
It’s important to note that Kansas City’s last trip to the postseason occurred in 2006 under QB Trent Green. Baltimore travelled to Kansas City in Week 14 of the 2006 regular season and defeated the Chiefs, 20-10.
Despite the mixed and limited history the Ravens have with the Chiefs, Sunday’s Wild Card matchup with the AFC West champions could be a highly favorable one for Baltimore in several ways.
The most glaring black mark the Chiefs own this year is their divisional record, which stands at 2-4. When you think of a playoff caliber team, you often think of a team that had success in their own division. The AFC West was full of underachievers in 2010, and a 2-4 mark against underachieving teams doesn’t speak volumes about a successful season.
Even more disturbing is Kansas City’s lack of success against teams with winning records. The Chiefs only win of the season to a team plus .500 came back in Week 1 to the San Diego Chargers—a 21-14 nail-biting win.
If there’s a bright spot in the Chiefs squad, it has to be their rushing attack, which ranks first in the NFL, averaging 164 yards per game.
Running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones both finished the season with five or more rushing touchdowns (Charles had six), and both backs contributed to an offense built around ball control and effective clock management.
QB Matt Cassel isn’t the type of player that’s going to “Wow” anyone with a 5,000-yard passing campaign throughout the course of an NFL season. However, Cassel rarely makes mistakes with the football, and his 27-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio ranks amongst the best in the NFL.
However, the Chiefs are the type of team the Ravens love to feast on—that is, they can be easily made into a one-dimensional football team.
Baltimore’s run defense has improved rapidly over the last half of the season, so stopping Charles shouldn’t be that difficult. Forcing Cassel to beat their secondary through the air is what the Ravens will likely ask the Chiefs to do on Sunday.
WR Dwayne Bowe has been Cassel’s primary target the entire season. The physical receiver has notched over 70 receptions in 2010 and averages close to 16 yards per reception. The problem is, Bowe is no longer the NFL’s best kept secret, and Baltimore should be able to neutralize the Chiefs main threat.
Kansas City TE Tony Moeaki is second to Bowe with 556 yards receiving—not even a close competition and one might say the Chiefs are in desperate need of a second go-to receiver, as their passing attack heavily favors Bowe.
As for the Ravens, better production from their offensive line will be key in determining how far they go in the playoffs. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from the line this year, and RB Ray Rice is hitting stride on the ground.
Baltimore’s offensive line must improve on protecting QB Joe Flacco now that the team has reached the postseason. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell which offensive line will show up on game day.
If Baltimore can rediscover the success in the trenches they had against New Orleans a few weeks ago, then Sunday’s game against the Chiefs should have a positive outcome.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron once again showed some level of conservatism with the offense last week against Cincinnati. This week, Cameron needs to let loose and not worry about the run-pass ratio—just work with what the opposition gives you. By the looks of the Chiefs humiliating loss to Oakland, the entire playbook should be open to Cameron on offense.
There’s no doubt most fans in Baltimore will judge Cameron even more based on how aggressive he remains against a Chiefs team that ranks towards the middle of the pack in total defense.
Given where these two teams are today after what they’ve accomplished during the 2010 NFL season, it’s not far-fetched to believe Baltimore should walk out of Kansas City victorious, with a convincing win and possibly a showdown with New England a week from Sunday.
Who will come out on top Sunday?
Matchup to Watch
Baltimore’s safety Ed Reed on Kansas City’s QB Matt Cassel will be the matchup to watch over the course of the game. Reed leads the NFL in interceptions with eight, despite missing the entire first half of the season due to hip surgery.
Reed has grabbed four interceptions in the last two games of the regular season, and that trend should continue against Kansas City on Sunday.
Todd McGregor is a Baltimore Ravens Featured Columnist here on BleacherReport.com
Follow Todd on Twitter! Twitter.com/ravens023.