Breaking down the AFC wild-card battle, Ravens at Chiefs, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
1. The Chiefs have yet to beat a team anywhere near as good as the Ravens. Back in September, in Sports Illustrated's NFL Preview issue, our schedule guru Andrew Perloff wrote the following: "Here's a case where a soft schedule can help a struggling club. Even with a difficult trip to Indianapolis in Week 5, Kansas City has the easiest out-of-division slate -- including Buffalo and Jacksonville at home -- of any AFC West team. If the Chiefs emerge from the early part of their schedule in decent shape, a stretch of winnable midseason games could set them up for a surprise playoff run."
Any stock tips, Perloff? He simply nailed how the Chiefs' schedule would play out -- they started 3-0 ("decent shape" indeed), lost to the Colts but won those home games against Buffalo and Jacksonville -- and they won 10 games, as many as they had in their previous three seasons combined, and the AFC West. In their 16 games, though, they faced teams that ended up with a winning record just three times, and won just one of those, way back in Week 1, when they beat the Chargers 21-14 at home.
Beating up on the mediocre-to-bad teams that fortuitously happen to populate your schedule is a perfectly valid way of making the playoffs, and it's not as easy a thing to do as it might seem. But it has done little to prepare the Chiefs to take on a tested team like the Ravens, who at 12-4 won two more games than Kansas City's best regular season opponent (Indianapolis), and who won all those games despite facing a much more difficult schedule than Kansas City. The Ravens played seven games against teams who ended up winning 10 or more. They won four of them (against the Jets, Steelers, Buccaneers and Saints), and lost the other three (against the Patriots, Falcons and Steelers) by a combined 11 points. In other words: the Ravens do not lose to teams they are supposed to beat. That constitutes a problem for the Chiefs.
2. The Arrowhead Advantage might only go so far. Due to the NFL's continued nonsensical playoff structure, which rewards inferior teams who win inferior divisions with first-round home games, this wild-card matchup will be played in the very loud, very red and often very inclement environment -- Sunday's forecast calls for a high of 31 degrees -- of Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. Against the Ravens, though, the Chiefs' home-field advantage might not be as advantageous as usual. While the Chiefs went 7-1 at home, that one loss came only a week ago -- and it was an ugly and dispiriting one, a 31-10 thrashing at the hands of the 8-8 Raiders.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are hot, the winners of four straight. More than that, in recent years they have proved themselves to be a terrific team away from home during the postseason, most notably when they went into Foxboro last Jan. 10 and beat the Patriots 33-14. (They also won a pair of road playoff games in '08.) There is no reason to expect that trend to end.
3. The Chiefs' top-ranked running attack can be stopped. Only three running back tandems in the history of the NFL have ever rushed for more regular season yards than the 2,363 that Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones mustered this season. Charles and Jones spearheaded the league's top-ranked ground game, which produced 164.2 yards per contest, and Charles, the elusive third-year man out of Texas, was particularly impressive. Not only did he rank second in the league with 1,467 yards on the ground, but also his average of 6.38 yards per carry fell just short of breaking Jim Brown's 47-year-old record of 6.40. Jones, who received 245 carries to Charles' 230, could easily take a backseat to his more explosive teammate in the playoffs, just as he did to Shonn Greene as a Jet last January.
However, as genuinely impressive as Charles' regular season rushing numbers were, we must again consider the teams against which he produced them. Charles had the great fortune of playing what seems like most of the league's most inept defenses against the run -- including six games against the league's 29th, 30th, 31st and 32nd-ranked run defenses (Oakland, Arizona, Denver, and Buffalo, respectively) -- and, in fact, he saw a run defense that ultimately ranked in the league's top half only four times.
The Ravens, meanwhile, were the league's fifth-stingiest defense against the rush, and Ray Lewis and friends allowed just three backs -- the Browns' Peyton Hillis in Week 3; the Panthers' Mike Goodson in Week 11; and the Texans' Arian Foster in Week 14 -- to accrue 100 yards in a game. Charles could have trouble reaching even half of his regular season average as far as yards-per-carry Sunday.
With so much seemingly stacked against them -- including the point spread (currently Ravens by 3) -- how can Kansas City produce enough points to win? The answer might be a bit counterintuitive.
The Chiefs, as discussed above, have gotten as far as they have based largely on the strength of their running game -- they were first in rushing attempts (556) and 29th in passing attempts (475) -- but head coach Todd Haley might want to seriously consider opening things up and allowing quarterback Matt Cassel to attack the Ravens through the air. Yes, the Ravens allowed just 6.4 yards per passing attempt -- second best in the NFL, behind the Steelers. But in Baltimore's four losses -- against the Bengals, Patriots, Falcons and Steelers, who on the season combined to pass 55 percent of the time, roughly the NFL average -- their opponents threw the ball 167 times and ran it just 104, meaning they passed on 62 percent of their offensive plays. Both the Falcons' Matt Ryan (50) and the Patriots' Tom Brady (44) had season-highs in pass attempts in their team's wins against the Ravens.
While all those throws didn't yield a terrific average -- just 5.76 yards per attempt by the Ravens' four conquerors -- what they seemed to do was wear down Baltimore's defense, which is at some positions either aging or inexperienced. That enabled the four victors to eke out close wins, even as they made little headway on the ground.
The Chiefs do have the athletically gifted pass-catching personnel to employ a similar strategy -- particularly in NFL receiving touchdowns leader Dwayne Bowe, rookie tight end Tony Moeaki, dual-threat rookie Dexter McCluster and Charles, who ranked 15th among running backs in receptions (45) and might in this game be significantly more effective on screen passes than handoffs. The only question will be if Haley has enough trust in Cassel -- who was 26th among quarterbacks in completion percentage (58.2 percent), and is no Ryan or Brady -- to try it. He should, as it could give his potentially overmatched team the best shot at an upset.
The Chiefs, of course, could conceivably win this game -- if, for example, Haley surprises the Ravens with a suddenly dynamic attack, if Jamaal Charles pulls off a few long and electrifying runs, if AFC sacks leader Tamba Hali breaks through to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco for a game-changing strip-sack. This, however, is a good matchup for the Ravens, who generally don't blow teams away, but grind them down. That is likely what will happen Sunday. Ravens 23, Chiefs 13.