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Ravens News 1/3: AFC playoff primer, making a deep run and more

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Five Reasons Why Ravens Can Make a Deep Playoff Run - Clifton Brown

The Ravens are healthy, and peaking at the right time

You could make a case that the Ravens are the NFL’s hottest team right now. The Indianapolis Colts have won four straight, but the Chiefs, Houston Texans, and New England Patriots have not been as consistent in December as they were earlier in the season. Having a first-round bye would have been nice, but both times the Ravens won the Super Bowl (2000, 2012), they did so without the benefit of a bye.

The Ravens haven’t made a roster transaction since Dec. 1, and all 53 players were healthy for Week 17. Head Coach John Harbaugh said it’s been big, and “the fact that we were healthy, the healthiest we’ve been all year, credit goes to the players for how hard they work and for our strength and conditioning and performance people. What a great job they’ve done. The continuity of practice and then games and having a full roster is really important.”

The Ravens are entering the playoffs hot and healthy – two qualities that are extremely important.

After a grueling regular season, the Ravens are quite healthy entering the postseason. Willie Henry is the only notable starter currently on injured reserve.

NFL Playoffs: Strength, area of concern for each AFC team - Cynthia Frelund

4) Baltimore Ravens

Win AFC: 13.2 percent.

Win Super Bowl: 6.9 percent.

Strength: Defensive efficiency.

The Ravens have the fifth-best third-down percentage (32.2) allowed and the second-best rushing average allowed (3.4 yards per rush) over their past five games. They’ve also allowed the third-fewest yards per drive this season (26.3) and the second-fewest points per drive (1.62). Pretty much the only area where the Ravens’ defense isn’t among the top of the league is in takeaways (they have 17, which is tied for 22nd).

Area of concern: Passing consistency.

Don’t get me wrong -- an efficient run game is a huge predictor of success, and we’ve seen the Ravens capitalize on their surging ground attack in the past five games. They’ve averaged 219.6 rushing yards, 44 rushes (62.5 percent of their plays) and more than 35 minutes of possession over that span -- all tops in the NFL. The problem is, when you add context to the passing situations in games 12-16 that resulted in their 56.2 percent completion percentage (31st in the league) and 88.4 passer rating (17th), they don’t forecast well should the Ravens find themselves needing to rely on the pass to pull off a come-from-behind win.

Baltimore may be able to overcome their inconsistent passing game if they improve their red zone efficiency. The offense did not score a touchdown on three trips inside the 20-yard line in Week 16 against the Chargers.

The Ravens’ offense poses a unique challenge to the Chargers - Ben Linsey

Since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback in Week 11, the Ravens have run the ball on 61% of their offensive snaps. To put in perspective just how run-heavy that is in the league today, the only other team to run the ball over 50 percent of the time since Week 11 was the Seattle Seahawks at 52%. The NFL average over that span across the other 30 teams in the NFL was 38%. The Ravens are doing something that no one else in the league is doing, and despite the fact that passing the ball is significantly more efficient than running, it’s working well in combination with their stout defense.

And unfortunately for the Chargers, that run-heavy approach is the thing that they aren’t well suited to defend against. On the season, the Chargers have the fifth-worst PFF team run defense grade at 73.2. They only have one true linebacker, Jatavis Brown, with over 500 defensive snaps played this season, and he won’t be available for the rest of the season due to the ankle injury that he suffered last week.

Defenses have begun to adjust to the passing attack that has dominated the league in recent years. The Chargers are one of those defenses, opting to employ smaller, hybrid players such as Phillips and James in the box to better cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield rather than larger, traditional linebackers to stuff the run game.

Edwards and Kenneth Dixon have done an excellent job of running north-south, while Jackson poses a constant threat to break a big play as a runner on the keep. With the top two options at linebacker for the Chargers now done for the season on a team that already wasn’t strong against the run, it remains to be seen whether or not they will be able to slow the Ravens on the ground. It appears as if the Ravens have the edge in the matchup, but the Chargers will be the first team to face the new Ravens’ offense for the second time. Your move, Gus Bradley.

After Baltimore gained 119 rushing yards on 22 first half carries in Week 16, Los Angeles’ defensive front stiffened up by allowing only 40 yards on 13 second half rushing attempts. The battle for the line of scrimmage will be paramount on wildcard Sunday.

NFL playoffs: Picks, odds for Chargers vs. Ravens wild-card game - The Sporting News

David Steele: The Ravens have the NFL’s No. 1 yardage defense, which isn’t terribly surprising with their history and the talent they have across the board. They’re also ninth in offensive yards, though, and that’s because no one has solved what Lamar Jackson brings. The Chargers couldn’t last time, two weeks ago. More troubling, Rivers, in the thick of the MVP race after the win over the Chiefs, threw four picks in the final two games, after just eight in the previous 14 games.

A hungry Ravens defense coming off a late stand against the Browns to clinch the division; a Chargers offense hitting a mild speed bump and possibly having a limping Melvin Gordon; a player in Jackson that seems easier to figure out than he actually is. It doesn’t add up for the Chargers. It will be a harsh end to an outstanding season.

Pick: Ravens, 21-19

Vinnie Iyer: The Ravens won the first matchup with a late fumble return TD while the Chargers were driving in comeback mode. The Chargers also didn’t have Gordon, Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler all fully healthy in that game, and now they should also have more pop at tight end. Gus Bradley will have the Chargers’ defense better prepared for the Jackson-led, run-heavy offense in the rematch, while Rivers will cut out his mistakes by finding the right matchups to exploit in the Ravens’ weaknesses in coverage.

The Ravens will stay in it with ball control and defense, but Rivers will build on his arguably best-ever season with a playoff road victory.

Pick: Chargers, 27-23

Tadd Haislop: This is a tricky game for the Chargers for the same reason it was tricky a few weeks ago, when the Ravens beat up on them in LA. Baltimore put up almost as many rushing yards (159) in that game as LA did total yards (198). That running game-and-defense formula got the Ravens to this point, and they’ll lean on it again against the Chargers, this time at home.

But we all know the challenges that come with trying to beat the same team twice in one season. Anthony Lynn, Philip Rivers and Co. aren’t having any of that.

Pick: Chargers, 27-20

The Ravens are holding as 2.5-point favorites in Las Vegas. The ELO model projects a 60-percent win probability for the home team.