Steven Ruiz, The Ringer
What’s at stake: Validation for the past six years of roster construction is at stake. Making up for the one-and-done disappointment of 2019 is at stake. Lamar Jackson’s reputation as a franchise-leading QB is absurdly at stake, as well. The Ravens have won a lot of football games since drafting Jackson at the end of the first round in 2018, but with only one postseason win to show for it, there are still a lot of lingering questions about this team’s ability to win in January. Those questions will only get louder if they fall short of the Super Bowl once again.
Why they can win the Super Bowl: Baltimore has the league’s most valuable player (presumably) and its top defense (statistically). That’s a good foundation for a championship run. And now that Jackson is operating a full-fledged NFL passing game—something he wasn’t given the opportunity to do under former OC Greg Roman—the postseason viability of the offense should no longer be a concern. We know it can run the ball well enough to win in January. This team has it all.
Why they can’t: It’s the same old story with this team: it can’t stay healthy. The Ravens overcame a growing list of injuries to key players during the regular season, but stars matter in the postseason and not having Mark Andrews in key offensive situations will make Jackson’s job more difficult. A banged-up secondary could have the opposite effect for opposing quarterbacks.
Dan Graziano, ESPN
The myth: This is the best team Lamar Jackson has ever had entering the playoffs
Jackson is the presumptive MVP of the league, and the supporting cast of receivers he has around him is generally thought to be the best he has ever had. Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr., Rashod Bateman, Nelson Agholor ... first-round picks all around. Even young tight end Isaiah Likely has performed at a level that has helped make up for the loss of old reliable Mark Andrews (left ankle) at that position.
The Ravens roll into the playoffs looking nearly unstoppable, having waxed the 49ers and Dolphins in a seven-day span at the end of 2023. And the defense under coordinator Mike Macdonald seems to be operating on a different level. Jackson’s Ravens look poised to do what they weren’t able to do the last time he won MVP in the 2019 season: make a playoff run.
Why it’s a myth: Let’s look at that 2019 season. Yes, this season’s Baltimore defense is better. It allows a league-low 16.5 points per game and also led the league with a whopping 112.8 defensive EPA. But the 2019 defense was also quite good. It ranked third with 17.6 points allowed per game and fourth in defensive EPA at 51.8.
Where this season’s team is less dominant, believe it or not, is on offense. We’re splitting hairs here, but the 2023 Ravens scored 28.4 points per game (fourth), gained 370.4 yards per game (sixth) and posted a 75.4 offensive EPA (sixth) and 57.5 offensive efficiency (eighth). But the run-heavy 2019 version? That team averaged 33.2 points per game (first) and 407.6 yards (second), and posted a 200.7 offensive EPA (first) and 75.0 offensive efficiency (second).
Giana Han, The Baltimore Banner
No. 4 Houston Texans
Reason to worry: They might be able to stop the Ravens’ ground game.
Only one team, the New England Patriots, has had a better run defense than the Texans this season. Ranked No. 2 in the NFL, the Texans are holding teams to 3.5 yards per carry. They also rank sixth in the NFL for rushing yards allowed per game (102). A good run defense is problematic for a Ravens team whose worst rushing performance was a 102-yard game. While the Ravens have many offensive weapons, they use the ground game to open up their options.
Reason to feel good: Houston’s pass defense is nowhere as good as their run defense.
Staunch defenders on the ground, the Texans have little defense to stop an air attack. They’re ranked third-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt (7.7) and fourth from the bottom in opposing team’s completion percentage (67.6%). In the past, that wouldn’t have been that encouraging, but the Ravens’ passing game has taken a huge leap forward, in part because of Lamar Jackson’s focus on improving in the pocket. If his receivers are healthy and don’t let him down, Jackson could have a field day with their pass defense.
Jeff Zrebiec, The Athletic
No. 6 Dolphins (11-6)
The Ravens would play the Dolphins next weekend if: The Bills beat the Steelers and the Dolphins upset the Chiefs in Arrowhead.
Biggest concerns: In the final two weeks of the regular season, the Dolphins went from playing for the No. 1 seed to squandering their once comfortable AFC East lead and having to go on the road to begin the playoffs. However, they still have a very explosive offense that should be getting even better with the expected returns of running back Raheem Mostert and wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. The Dolphins’ offense finished second in DVOA and first in yards per game. They can move the ball on anyone. They also presumably learned a thing or two in their 56-19 humbling in Baltimore and would have a far better game plan on both sides.
Biggest advantages: You probably don’t need to rewatch the Week 17 game between the two teams to know Baltimore matches up pretty well against Miami. The Dolphins’ defense, which had been playing at a high level, has just been decimated by injuries in recent weeks. They may start the playoffs without their top three edge rushers, and their secondary has been hit hard by injuries, too. The Dolphins went just 4-4 on the road this season, and their record against teams in the playoff field is 1-5. Aside from a home victory against Dallas, Miami’s body of work wasn’t good against high-quality teams. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa didn’t enter the postseason on a high note, either.
Gordon McGuinness, PFF
The three highest-graded quarterbacks from the regular season are separated by just one point on the 0-100 scale, so any of them could be the pick here. However, Jackson is a near lock to win his second MVP award, not just because of his own performance but also the stress he puts on opposing defenses with his rushing ability. He ended the 2023 regular season with a 90.3 PFF overall grade and an 85.1 PFF passing grade, both career highs.