Mahomes has the best chance of anyone at establishing a Brady-esque run of conference dominance—he’s made it to at least the AFC championship game in each of the past three seasons. He is surrounded by contenders: Josh Allen, the Bills’ great risk, the most successful project quarterback ever selected; Lamar Jackson, the best dual-threat quarterback since Michael Vick; Justin Herbert, the intradivisional thorn in Mahomes’s side that Brady never had to endure; and Burrow, who has had Mahomes’s number each time they’ve played in the last two seasons. And what about the golden child Trevor Lawrence? Or the offense built for Tua Tagovailoa in Miami?
Make no mistake about it: The AFC geared up for this, exactly this. And now we have a playoff field full of young, star quarterbacks, selected in droves after the departure of Brady and the rest of his generation. This was the arms race, the mad dash for greatness once the ubiquitous yoke of the all-time greatest was finally lifted. Brady is gone, and the AFC crown is up for grabs.
NO. 9: BALTIMORE RAVENS
Biggest strength: Offensive line
PFF’s Sam Monson noted that the Ravens offensive line was only flagged 24 times all season, making them the least penalized group in football. The importance of left tackle Ronnie Stanley‘s return also can’t be overstated: Stanley allowed 16 total pressures and one sack across 298 pass-blocking snaps during the regular season. Other Ravens left tackles allowed six sacks combined.
Biggest weakness: Receiving
Obviously, the situation under center hasn’t been a model of consistency with Lamar Jackson (knee) sidelined, and the loss of Rashod Bateman (foot, IR) didn’t help matters. Even then, the Ravens entered the season as one of just five offenses with fewer than $10 million devoted to its wide receiver room and accordingly had to unironically sign the likes of DeSean Jackson and Sammy Watkins down the stretch. Throw in a down year from Mark Andrews (at least relative to his own sky-high expectations), and it’s not overly surprising to see this offense ranking just 28th and 27th in yards per route run and PFF receiving grade, respectively.
NFL playoffs: Which AFC/NFC teams are most likely to hit Super Bowl LVII? Who’ll lift Lombardi Trophy? - Cynthia Frelund
Win AFC: 3.8%
Win SB: 0.6%
Odds to win Super Bowl: +4000
Odds to win AFC: +1900
Despite missing time due to injury — and missing quarterback Lamar Jackson down the stretch — Mark Andrews ranks fourth in tight end win share this season. He easily leads the Ravens in receptions (73), receiving yards (847) and receiving touchdowns (five), with those catch and yardage figures ranking top three among all tight ends. Andrews accounted for 26.5 percent of Baltimore’s receiving yards this season, the highest percentage for any TE. Andrews is homegrown, but Baltimore added a key cog via midseason trade in linebacker Roquan Smith. In Weeks 1 through 8, the Ravens allowed 22.9 points per game (20th) and 364.3 total yards per game (24th). Then they acquired Smith from the Bears. Subsequently, in Weeks 9 through 18, Baltimore allowed just 14.7 ppg (2nd) and 288.8 ypg (3rd). No wonder the Ravens just signed Smith — who’s fresh off his first Pro Bowl bid — to a five-year, $100 million contract extension. Here’s an additional gem from NFL Research: With 169 tackles, 4.5 sacks and three interceptions on the season, Smith is the only player not named Ray Lewis to eclipse 150 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions in a single season over the past quarter-century.
Key matchup: Ravens’ defensive line vs. the right side of Bengals’ offensive line
Injuries stink. Compounding injuries are horrific. Two weeks after the Bengals lost right tackle La’el Collins for the season, right guard Alex Cappa suffered an injury against the Ravens. The Bengals have ruled Cappa out for this game, so they’ll start two backups in the wild-card round: right guard Max Scharping and right tackle Hakeem Adeniji. Thankfully for Cincinnati, Joe Burrow is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at dealing with pressure. He made it to the Super Bowl last season looking like he was playing dodgeball behind a bad offensive line.
The Ravens have had success playing two-deep coverages to take away deep passes, and they’ve done a good job of tackling when opponents throw short. Their run defense has also improved since acquiring Roquan Smith in Week 9. Since the trade, the Ravens rank sixth in defensive rush success rate. In Week 18, the Ravens held the Bengals to their second-worst rushing performance of the year in terms of rushing success rate (20 percent).
If the Bengals struggle to run block and pass protect with a banged-up offensive line, this game could be closer than people expect. After losing Cappa in the fourth quarter, Burrow was sacked once and completed only 1 of 3 passes for 8 yards. While trying to bleed the clock, the Bengals rushed the ball nine times for 18 yards.
Of course, none of this might matter if Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase make magic, but the Ravens could make that a lot harder if they dominate the right side of the Bengals’ offensive line.
Playoffs: Ravens Vs. Bengals Preview, Where to Watch, Prediction - Todd Karpovich
The Ravens rested running back J.K. Dobbins, tight end Mark Andrews, and guard Kevin Zeitler last week in the finale. All of those players will be back in the lineup this week and should help close the gap talent-wise. The Ravens are going to need to run the ball effectively and avoid turnovers to have any shot at winning the game. The team is not equipped to get into a shootout with Cincinnati. If the Ravens fall behind early they will be in trouble.
The Bengals have not been able to run the ball and had just 55 yards on 20 carries against the Ravens last week. Baltimore should have continued success against Cincinnati’s run game, especially with Calais Campbell back in the lineup. The challenge will be containing the aerial attack.
Since 1978, it’s the 17th time two teams will meet in the playoffs one week after finishing a regular season. The team that won the regular-season finale has won three of the last five playoff games. The Bengals will have most of their weapons available for this game. The Ravens have struggled to score in recent weeks and the intensity will be ratcheted up this game. Baltimore keeps it close but just can’t close the gap on the Bengals.
Bengals 24, Ravens 17