Why the Baltimore Ravens are the team that could bust your AFC Playoff Brackets
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Inevitably, the direction of the NFL playoff discussion will start to head in the direction of darkhorses. Last year, the Cardinals upset three teams on the way to the Super Bowl. In 2007, the wild card New York Giants won the whole thing, having to beat the first and second seeds in the NFC before facing an undefeated opponent in the Super Bowl — and winning. In 2006, the Colts were a pretty big darkhorse to do well, after all, it looked like the K.C. Chiefs might have a favorable match-up against them — and that team hasn’t done very much since that game. The 2005 Steelers were a 6th seed that won it all.
The guys at Football Outsiders have Baltimore atop their DVOA Ratings. That’s trivial in the greater sense: the same system has Green Bay at No. 2, and I have every reason to believe that the Pack will be one and done in the NFL postseason. I think the Ravens are a truly great team, my analysis of Pythagorean records has suggested that they have out-played their record, but Baltimore is great because they have great players and the ability to hide the quarterback, Flacco, if they need to in order to survive a scare.
Whether you believe that the Ravens are one of the best teams in football, or whether you believe that they have been what their record says they are, I think they have a favorable match-up in the postseason with New England, and could benefit from being the team that gets to play the Colts in the divisional round.
Now, I’ll elaborate on that last thought. The Colts and Patriots scored better than any other two teams in my preseason power rankings. How in the world can a team that knows it must go on the road to play the two emblematic powerhouses of the AFC possibly have an advantage due to a favorable schedule?
Injuries. The great football equalizer. The Colts have not had very much injury luck this year, particularly on defense. If there’s anything that their last two weeks of resting their starters have shown, it’s that this is a very fast, talented defense, but it relies on a whole lot of functional parts and superstars. These parts are not very functional without the superstars. When it was thought the Colts could go 16-0, one of the biggest reasons was that they could stay diverse enough on defense to mask where the true weaknesses are. We see this all the time. Teams very often get into November on strength of scheme alone, players who have been dormant forever play great for 10 weeks, and we in the media wonder how this could possibly happen. We laud offseason work efforts and individual intangibles. But then it all falls apart. Ask Josh McDaniels about it sometime, preferably sometime later.
In a nutshell, the Colts defense is at a crossroads. It still has great players on the defensive line, a highly underrated middle linebacker, outside linebackers enjoying great seasons, a pair of replacement corners who might have been excellent scouting finds (or…might not), some safeties who didn’t expect to have this much responsibility, etc. The defensive philosophy is based on being faster than you: in their reads, with their feet. Easy to do against Jacksonville and Tennessee, much tougher to do against Baltimore and San Diego.
The Patriots managed to have an 8-0 season at home, but their most impressive win there was against the…Ravens. The Patriots were just brutal on the road this year, but it wasn’t because of a crazy internal dichotomy between their ability to prepare to play at Gilette Stadium vs. taking a plane to the game. It was because they happened to play their toughest opponents on the road. The fact that the Ravens have already taken a much stronger Pats team to the gun at home suggests that there will be no additional advantage regarding where the game will be played. The Pats will have home field advantage, but the Ravens have the advantage of being the healthier — and better — team.
I can’t tell you who the Ravens would play in the AFC Championship if they get past the Pats and Colts. I can tell you the probabilities say they will play the Chargers, who haven’t lost since…the Broncos were undefeated. Do I like the Ravens to beat the Chargers in San Diego? Not really. But just because the Ravens are a bracket-buster doesn’t mean that they have to go to the super bowl, nor does it mean that they have to beat the three best teams in the conference to get there. There’s also no mandate that suggests the Chargers will get past the divisional round of the playoffs. There’s only the fact that they will play at home vs. one of the following teams: Patriots, Bengals, Jets. That’s more or less like being the Panthers against either the Vikings, Cardinals, and Falcons last year. That’s a great draw! Just saying.
I do think the Chargers are the best team in the AFC field. But two things prevent me from making them my pick to represent the conference in Miami (neither are Norv Turner): first, that this is not a team that has avoided the injury big this year by any means. They might end up starting Jon Runyan at RT. Their defense has been largely unproductive this year, although improved. Secondly, I just like the benefit of knowing your draw in the postseason.
I think that’s one of the biggest reasons that you are seeing more wins in the divisional round from third and sixth seeds in recent years. I think it’s an advantage to know that 1) you’ll play the New England Patriots, and if you win, 2) you’ll play the Indianapolis Colts. The Chargers should win their divisional round game anyway. But again, if the Patriots can beat the Ravens somehow, they know that they have the Chargers while the Chargers have to at least watch the Jets-Bengals game for the fact that they very well might play the winner. I think the Pats have a much better chance of beating the Chargers on the road than they do to beat the Ravens at home.
Just another reason that the first game is the most critical for the playoff bracket buster. And in that aspect, I like the Ravens above all. I can’t see Philadelphia recovering from the beating that the Dallas defense put on them last week, even if all recent history suggests they will. I can’t see the Packers having any success with travel this week enough to muster another strong effort against the Cardinals team that was clearly comfortable enough with their playoff match-up to hold back. I think Dallas can win a playoff game, but they’re not a serious contender in the NFC. I really think Arizona is the only team that is good enough, and more importantly–creative enough–to break the Saints. But after last year, are the Cardinals a darkhorse? Or are they right under our noses?
No, if not for the Ravens, we might be staring down another Pats-Colts AFC Championship, and as fun as that November tussle was, no match-up is more overplayed than New England-Indianapolis. I think the Ravens can break the Patriots and the Colts, and everyone elses’ playoff bracket in the conference.
You can put the smart money on San Diego in the AFC, but it’s Balitmore who will be right with them at the end.