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Ravens News 1/6: Titans on tap and more

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

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The Baltimore Ravens, on the other hand, send the most rushers per play (4.65) but make the opponent hang on to the ball longer than the average team, and they have had a top defense as a result.

My colleague Steve Palazzolo wrote about the Ravens’ approach a while back, highlighting how they manufacture pressure and build through the secondary. There’s no bigger testament to this approach than cornerback Marcus Peters, who is our fifth-highest graded cornerback since arriving in Baltimore for Week 7.

The Ravens’ opponents have been forced to hold onto the ball for 2.9 seconds per pass attempt since the trade as opposed to 2.6 seconds beforehand. Now that they have a defense with Earl Thomas III, four starting-caliber cornerbacks, a resolved linebacker group and a great scheme, look out for the Ravens’ defense in the playoffs.

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When Eric DeCosta succeeded Ozzie Newsome as the team’s general manager after last season, he emphasized two main points: creating salary-cap flexibility and extending the contracts of key players before they hit free agency.

The Ravens have done both. When they recently signed Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters to a reported three-year, $42 million contract, he became the eighth player DeCosta has extended, following kicker Justin Tucker, tight end Nick Boyle, guard Marshal Yanda, wide receiver Willie Snead IV, nickel cornerback Tavon Young, fullback/defensive tackle Patrick Ricard and linebacker L.J. Fort.

Players have taken notice as well, lauding the front office for its aggression.

“It’s been really good … all the guys we’ve signed are great players,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “Unlike last year, when it was a lot of, ‘Who are we going to sign?’ and this and that, it’s good to know we have a lot of guys already signed.”

Meanwhile, with Flacco’s contract coming off the books after this season, the Ravens will have greater flexibility to sign lucrative extensions for players such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and outside linebacker Matthew Judon. They’ll also have more room to pursue established stars from other teams, though such moves have rarely been their chief focus.

The Ravens have a window to maintain stacked rosters over the next three years while franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson is playing on his modest rookie contract.

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The Ravens didn’t face Tennessee during the regular season, and the Titans will arrive in Baltimore loaded with confidence. The Titans made the playoffs by winning five of their last seven games during the regular season to finish 9-7, and they became a different team after Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback in Week 7. Tannehill had the best season of his eight-year career in Tennessee, throwing 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions and running for another four scores.

Meanwhile, the heart of Tennessee’s offense is running back Derrick Henry, who was the NFL’s leading rusher (1,540 yards) during the regular season. Henry was the workhorse against the Patriots, rushing for 182 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries, while Tannehill threw for just 72 yards. Controlling Henry will be the top priority for the Ravens’ defense that ranked fifth in the NFL (93.4 yards allowed) against the run this season.

Tennessee’s defense was ranked in the lower half of the NFL, but the Titans turned in a clutch performance against New England as cornerback Logan Ryan sealed the victory with a pick-six against Brady in the final minute. The Titans held quarterback Tom Brady and New England’s offense scoreless in the second half.

2019 NFL playoffs: AFC divisional-round schedule, bracket and previews for Titans-Ravens and Texans-Chiefs - Kevin Seifert

(6) Titans at (1) Ravens

Opening line: BAL -8.5 (48)

ESPN Football Power Index projection: BAL, 81.8% (by an average of 11.9 points)

What to watch for: An old-fashioned run fest. The Ravens (3,296) and Titans (2,223) finished the season ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in rushing yards, respectively. We know what they like to do. The Ravens want quarterback Lamar Jackson to do his thing with read options and designed runs. The Titans like to use running back Derrick Henry, the league’s leading rusher, to wear down opponents. No secrets there.

How the Titans win: They must withstand the Ravens’ typical early onslaught. During the regular season, the Ravens had the NFL’s best first-quarter point margin (plus-97). The Titans can’t fall behind early if they intend to ride Henry in the second half. If they can reverse the Ravens’ trends -- and be in a position where they don’t need to pass to catch up on the scoreboard -- the Titans will have a chance for a big upset.

How the Ravens win: It’s likely that they can win using their usual formula. Jackson threw eight touchdown passes in the first quarter of games this season, tied for fourth most in the NFL, which helped his team get out to big leads. If the Ravens can do that, Jackson & Co. are good enough from a personnel standpoint to roll from there.

X factor: Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. We know the Titans are going to ride Henry, but at some point they will -- like all teams -- need a play or two from their quarterback to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Tannehill was one of the NFL’s top five quarterbacks in the second half of the season, making tough and accurate throws with regularity, but the postseason is an entirely different animal. He converted some big third downs on Saturday against the Patriots, both through the air and on the ground, but he also dropped the snap on a crucial failed third-down play.