As we approach the four year “anniversary” of the Baltimore Ravens haunting playoff collapse vs. the Tennessee Titans, the NFL script writers have prepped what seems like an exact replica of the one that has plagued Ravens fans since 2019. Red hot AFC south team? Young, defensive minded head coach? Ravens nearly 10-point favorites? The similarities surrounding the game are eerily similar. If you’re superstitious, you might be in for a stressful week. However, these are completely different teams.
The 2023 Houston Texans aren’t the 2019 Titans, and this year’s Ravens are not the 2019 Ravens. From that game, six players remain: Lamar Jackson, Justin Tucker, Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphery, Gus Edwards, and Mark Andrews. The Ravens offense and defense is completely different and arguably better on both sides of the ball. As for Houston, they’re riding a hot streak that featured wins over the Jaguars, Colts, and Browns with the first two wins pole vaulting them into first place in the division and a home playoff game. Of course, the main discourse has been the one surrounding rookie QB C.J. Stroud. While he is a rookie on paper, his play reflects that of a season vet. Stroud is already a consensus top-10 quarterback as a first-year player and has the Texans rolling.
While the Texans turnaround has been impressive, they will be walking into a buzzsaw on Saturday afternoon. It’s rare to see a team dominate in as many phases as the Ravens have this year. On offense, they can kill you through the ground and the air. On defense, they lead the league in sacks, turnovers, points-allowed per game, and more. They ranked first in DVOA on defense and were second (now fourth) on offense before resting most of their offense in Week 18 vs. Pittsburgh. Essentially, they sport a defense better than the Browns, and an offense better than teams like Miami, Buffalo, and Detroit. A true juggernaut in every sense of the word. Unless they shoot themselves in the foot, it’s going to be very difficult for a team to beat them. Even in games where the offense has been inconsistent, their defense made it close (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, LA Chargers).
The 2019 Ravens had a good defense. They had great corners in Marlon Humphery and Marcus Peters, but not much else. Outside of the two, Matt Judon, who had 9 ½ sacks, was arguably their third best defender. In 2019, the team had 37 sacks. This year they have 60. They didn’t have a Kyle Hamilton or a Patrick Queen, or a Roquan Smith. This defense is different. They don’t have a weakness talent wise and are being directed by arguably the best young defensive mind in football, Mike MacDonald. The only time we’ve seen them bend this season was versus Deshaun Watson and the Browns, and Matt Stafford and the Rams. Both quarterbacks put on incredible performances and needed every throw or scramble to keep the game close.
Many analysts cite Stroud’s performance against Cleveland’s elite defense last week as a reason for optimism against Baltimore. The only issue is that they will be playing a completely different defense and scheme with different strengths. The Browns run a very vanilla defense that features almost exclusively man defense with five pass rushers and one high safety. In Baltimore, Mike MacDonald runs one of the most intricate schemes in the league featuring his signature simulated pressure packages. Baltimore has the best linebacker unit in the league with 1st and 2nd team All-Pro’s Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen. They have the best safety unit in the league featuring arguably the best in 1st team All-Pro Kyle Hamilton. On the outside, Brandon Stephens and Marlon Humphery have been as good as it gets when healthy. Up front, the Ravens have a blend of veterans and young studs like Jadaveon Clowney and 2nd team All-Pro Justin Madubuike. The defense is stacked and should make things very difficult on Stroud and the Texans. As a plus, they’ve handled Shanahan style offenses like Miami and San Francisco, which Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowick runs.
In the event Houston can effectively move the ball and score touchdowns on this defense, they will also need to hold probable two-time MVP Lamar Jackson and company in check, something very few teams have been able to do this year. In the beginning of the year, the offense had its hiccups. In their opening game against. Houston, they looked like a team that was in its infant stages of implementing a new offense. Fast forward eighteen weeks and they are playing at as high of a level as anyone. The run and pass game have complemented each other perfectly with several different players making an impact down the stretch.
The Ravens finished the season without a thousand-yard rusher or receiver which is a testament to how they’ve spread the ball around and kept things unpredictable. It seems like we’re at the point where Jackson has complete control of the offense. He has command at the line of scrimmage and is reading and processing defenses at the highest level of his career. He’s been the best quarterback in the NFL during Baltimore’s win streak and is highly motivated to right the wrongs of his playoff past. To make things even more stressful for the league, Jackson might be getting his right-hand-man Mark Andrews back. Andrews started practicing last week, which puts him in position to play versus Houston, albeit in a limited role. The Ravens also signed running back Dalvin Cook two weeks ago. While Cook had a rough year in a terrible New York Jets offense, he is still just a year removed from being hailed as one of the better backs in the league in Minnesota and should bring some extra juice to a backfield that lost Keaton Mitchell for the season.
While there are similarities between the matchup on Saturday and the one that transpired four years ago, the construction of the teams playing couldn’t be more different. The Texans are a pass first team with a rookie quarterback. The Titans were a run first team with arguably the greatest running back of the last ten years in the backfield. While their 10-7 record is impressive given they had the number two pick in this year’s draft, the Texans aren’t nearly as battle tested as Baltimore. Houston’s signature wins this season have been against the Bengals, Browns, and Colts. The Ravens obliterated the 49ers, Dolphins, and Lions, amongst other teams.
This is Baltimore’s time. They have the horses and more importantly, have leaders across the team, unlike the 2019 squad. This might be the best team the Ravens will ever have and it’s time for them to take advantage.