The Baltimore Ravens don’t know exactly who their first opponent in the playoffs will be when they take the field next weekend in the divisional round. However, the list of possible matchups was narrowed down at the conclusion of the regular season. As the No. 1 seed with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they will host the lowest remaining seed coming out of Round 1.
With the Buffalo Bills holding the second seed and the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in third, it narrows the Ravens’ possible opponents to four teams, all of which they played in during the regular season once or even twice.
Here is a ranking that lists and breaks down each of the potential divisional round matchups by the least to the most dangerous.
No. 4: Pittsburgh Steelers
The seventh-seeded Steelers lucked into making the playoffs by barely edging past a Ravens team that rested several starters in Week 18. The Ravens were playing to avoid major injuries in their season finale. Pittsburgh was helped by the Jacksonville Jaguars falling flat on their faces in a stunning loss to the Tennessee Titans.
If they miraculously find a way to beat the second-seeded Bills on the road this Sunday, they’ll be welcomed back to Baltimore with open arms and bad intentions. They’d face a hungry, well-rested No. 1 seed who will be highly motivated to snap a three-game losing skid to their longtime archrivals. The Steelers have won seven of the last eight meetings in this once storied rivalry.
This would be the most desirable and least daunting of all of the possible matchups for the Ravens in the divisional round. Even though the Steelers almost always give the Ravens a tremendous fight, they’d likely still be without their best player. Three-time NFL sack leader and six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker T.J. Watt suffered a grade two MCL sprain in Week 18. The injury can take several weeks to recover from, so even if Pittsburgh does find a way to get past Buffalo, Watt probably wouldn’t be available. If he tried to push and return early, he likely wouldn’t be anywhere near the same destructive force he is when healthy.
No. 3: Cleveland Browns
The fifth-seeded Browns, led by former Ravens franchise quarterback and Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco, have been dubbed by some as one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. They are even favored to beat the Houston Texans on the road this weekend. The Browns have an elite defense that is either right behind or in front of the Ravens’ unit in several major categories. They also have a seasoned veteran signal-caller who has elevated their passing attack with the most consistent quarterback play the team has had in a long time.
Cleveland was the last team to beat the Ravens in the regular season when they weren’t resting Jackson and several other starters. It took a miraculous second-half performance from their injured franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson, who went 14-of-14 after halftime to mount a double-digit comeback in Week 10. Since then, the Ravens went on to beat five of their next six opponents by double figures prior to letting some of their key players get a jump start on the bye in Week 18.
The current version of the Browns’ offense with Flacco at the helm plays right into the strength of the Ravens’ defense and would make for a very favorable matchup for Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald. While they’ve thrived off of play-action passing, Cleveland is averaging just 80.5 rushing yards in their last six games. Baltimore’s propensity for changing coverage post-snap will cause the soon-to-be 39-year-old Flacco to hold onto the ball longer on rollouts and traditional drop backs. Although he has shown more mobility in his late 30s than most primary pocket passers, the Ravens will likely always have a defender barreling down on him every time he attempts a pass.
As dominant as the vaunted Browns’ defense has been this season, in their two matchups with the Ravens, they’ve allowed an average of 26 points and 301 yards of total offense. That’s above their average of 21.3 points and 270.1 yards per game allowed over the course of the full season.
Baltimore’s starting offensive tackles will also be much healthier this time around compared to their last matchup. In Week 10, veteran right tackle Morgan Moses was out with a shoulder injury and Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley wasn’t able to finish the game with his second knee injury this season. Both players have come on strong down the stretch, had light workloads in the regular season finale, and will be well-rested. They’d be up against a Browns’ front that is ferocious and features a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Myles Garrett. However, they’ve been banged up as of late also with no reprieve, as their bye week came all the way back in Week 5. That means they will have played 14 straight games heading into the divisional round if they make it out of the Wildcard.
No. 2: Miami Dolphins
If the sixth-seeded Dolphins can get past the third-seeded reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Saturday, they might just be headed back to Baltimore for the second time in less than a month. While the Ravens blew them out and made Scorigami history in the process with a 56-19 victory in Week 17, that game was tightly contested until the final minutes of the first half.
Miami has been getting healthier on offense and they’d likely have a pair of explosive playmakers back for this potential rematch in speedy wideout Jaylen Waddle and Pro Bowl running back Raheem Mostert. Waddle has recorded over 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons in the league. Mostert led the team in rushing yards and recorded a career-high, NFL-leading 18 rushing touchdowns. They both missed the last two games of the regular season with a high ankle sprain for Waddle and both ankle and knee injuries for Mostert.
The Dolphins’ defense has been devastated by injuries on the edge in the second half of the season. They had to sign a pair of veterans in their mid-30s off the street this week in Bruce Irvin (36) and former Raven Justin Houston (34). While both Houston and Irvin spent time with different teams this season prior to being released, they aren’t needle movers and offer little upside. Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard is dealing with a foot injury that will cause him to miss the Wildcard round and maybe longer. So, any potential rematch with the Ravens would likely have to be a shootout for Miami to stand a chance of pulling off an upset.
No. 1: Houston Texans
The fourth-seeded Texans are currently slight underdogs at home to the Browns, but they are by far the most dangerous of the potential matchups for the Ravens in the divisional round. That’s because they have the best quarterback of the bunch. When Houston came to Baltimore to open the season in Week 1, C.J. Stroud wasn’t the rookie sensation that he is now. However, he still showed some impressive flashes in a 25-9 loss that wasn’t as lopsided as the scoreboard suggests.
After the game, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh was so impressed that he predicted that the Texans would “win a lot of football games this year.” That’s exactly what they did, winning more games than they did the past two seasons combined and nearly more than the last three in total.
John Harbaugh said this the day after the Ravens beat the Texans in Week 1, 25-9:— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) January 7, 2024
"I’ve said this before about certain teams early in the season – ‘They're going to win a lot of football games this year.’ Mark it down. You’ll see. That’s a good, young football team."
Led by Stroud in all but two games due to a concussion, Houston finished 10-7 and won the AFC South division for the first time in five years since the 2019. He broke rookie records and is the odds-on favorite to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year. The 2023 second overall pick has the future of football in Houston looking very bright and will pose a much greater threat to the Ravens’ defense this time around, now that he has a full season’s worth of experience under his belt.
On the other side of the ball, the Texans’ defense gave the Ravens’ new-look offense some serious problems in the season opener. If their top edge rushers, rookie Will Anderson and fourth-year pro Jonathan Greenard, are healthy and available again, they could present a similarly daunting challenge. Thankfully, Baltimore still has Jackson under center who is the odds-on favorite to win league MVP for the second time in his career. The offense as a whole has improved and found its groove since then. They appeared to be clicking on all cylinders the last time they played a meaningful game in Week 17, before resting Jackson and several other starters in the regular season finale.