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Ravens News 1/23: Brilliant Opener

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Highlights: Notable grades and standout performances

Gordon McGuinness, PFF

QB LAMAR JACKSON, BALTIMORE RAVENS

PFF Grade: 83.9

After a first half during which the Texans heavily blitzed the Ravens, Lamar Jackson and company tightened things up. Baltimore scored on all four of its possessions in the second half, including three straight touchdown drives. Jackson’s passing numbers were modest — 16-of-22 for 152 yards with a pair of passing touchdowns — but he also added 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground, forcing three missed tackles in the process.

EDGE JADEVEON CLOWNEY, BALTIMORE RAVENS

PFF Grade: 79.0

Clowney was a fantastic preseason signing for the Ravens, and he came up big in the team’s divisional-round win over the Houston Texans. He didn’t dominate as a pass rusher, totaling just two pressures from 24 pass-rushing snaps, but he was a force against the run. He earned a season-high 85.6 PFF run-defense grade and made a pair of tackles resulting in a defensive stop.

NFL playoff conference title games: Lions-49ers, Chiefs-Ravens

Seth Walder, ESPN

Why the Ravens will win: Both sides of the ball are on fire for Baltimore. Let’s start with the defense, where the Ravens allowed zero offensive touchdowns in the divisional round against the Texans. The Ravens’ defense didn’t blink against Houston the way the Browns did in the wild-card round, and the unit was dominant, particularly against the run, where Baltimore allowed negative-0.29 EPA per play. It’s nothing new for the Ravens’ defense, which now ranks first in EPA per play over the course of the season, playoffs included.

Despite the name brand of the Chiefs, the reality of this matchup is that Baltimore’s defense has been much, much better than the Kansas City offense. The Chiefs were ranked 10th in EPA per play entering Sunday.

Offensively, the Ravens are on almost as strong of a roll. They were good all season, and they kicked it up a notch in the playoffs. Jackson posted a 94 QBR against Houston, and on his run plays or dropbacks, the Ravens accrued 0.41 EPA per play. In other words, every five of Jackson’s plays added two full points to the Ravens’ expected scoring margin. The Chiefs’ defense will provide more resistance than Houston’s did, but Kansas City ranked 11th in EPA per play allowed against opposing QB scrambles or runs. And overall, the Chiefs are simply weaker against the run, ranking 26th in EPA per opponent designed carry. It could be another big day for Jackson.

The First Read, Championship Sunday: One question for each advancing/eliminated NFL playoff team

Jeffri Chadiha, NFL.com

Can the Ravens’ defense be solved?

Lamar Jackson was the headliner in Baltimore’s 34-10 Divisional Round win over Houston because he entered the weekend with a history of playing poorly in the postseason. However, the story of that game was the Ravens’ defense. Anybody who watched that beatdown had to come away wondering if any opposing offense has the juice to conquer that bunch right now. The Texans were humming behind rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud coming into that contest. They wound up doing nothing substantial. Houston couldn’t run (38 rushing yards) or throw (175 passing yards), and Stroud was under pressure for most of the game.

The only touchdown the Texans did manage came on a 67-yard punt return by Steven Sims in the second quarter that briefly gave Houston hope. The Texans wound up not even reaching the red zone after that point, which speaks volumes to how stingy the Ravens have become on defense. They can rush the passer (SEE: NFL-high 60 sacks in the regular season), take the ball away (Baltimore tied for the league lead with 31 turnovers) and keep opponents out of the end zone (a league-best 16.5 points per game allowed).

Mike Macdonald’s D also takes a ton of pressure off Jackson, who is playing some of the best football of his life at the best possible time. Saturday was critical because the Ravens had to show people that three weeks without a meaningful football game wouldn’t be a curse. What they also proved was their defense is long past the frustrating moments it endured earlier this year, when it fell apart in the fourth quarter of some losses. This bunch is living up to the legacy of past Ravens defenses. The only question now is whether they can slay a Chiefs offense that is clicking (finally) at just the right time.

NFL playoffs: Projecting final 4 teams’ odds to win Super Bowl, with conference title game analysis

Jeff Howe, The Athletic

No. 1 Baltimore Ravens vs. No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs, 3 p.m. ET, Sunday

Quarterback Lamar Jackson was the best player on the field during the Ravens’ 34-10 victory against the Houston Texans, and they’re virtually unstoppable when that happens. The Ravens are 10-0 this season, including Saturday when Jackson’s passer rating is above 90, and that doesn’t even take into account his rushing prowess.

It’s hardly all Jackson, though. Head coach John Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Todd Monken and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald were brilliant in their playoff opener. Monken’s adjustments were outstanding against the Texans’ aggressive blitz packages, while Macdonald accomplished the rare feat of shutting down quarterback C.J. Stroud. It would feel like a surprise at this point if Macdonald doesn’t get a head coaching job this cycle, and it’s not inconceivable to think the Ravens could lose both coordinators.

While it’s seemed like the Ravens’ year, they’ve now got to slay the reigning Super Bowl champions as the Chiefs continue to attempt to fortify their claim as a modern-day dynasty. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is coming off his first career playoff victory on the road, and he’s going to have to do it again in his sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance.

Not only that, but the Chiefs just played their best game of the season by a considerable margin. The defense locked in with three consecutive scoreless possessions to close the game, but that unit has been solid all season. More impressive, Mahomes and his supporting cast delivered in several key moments, only making one pivotal mistake. If they play this well in Baltimore, the title game should be a thriller.

Five things to know about the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens’ opponent in the AFC championship game

C. J. Doon, The Baltimore Sun

Their coach was John Harbaugh’s mentor

Back in 1999, the Philadelphia Eagles fired coach Ray Rhodes and hired Andy Reid, then the Green Bay Packers’ quarterbacks coach. Reid, a first-time head coach, chose to retain some of the members of Rhodes’ staff. One of them was John Harbaugh.

“Andy did not have to give me a chance coming in at the time,” Harbaugh said in 2018. “I’m sure he had a lot of people he knew, but he decided to take a chance on me, and like I said, I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

Harbaugh remained on Reid’s staff as special teams coordinator for nine seasons before becoming defensive backs coach in 2007. It helped gain the attention of the Ravens, who hired Harbaugh as coach over Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now in his 16th season in Baltimore, the 61-year-old Harbaugh has become one of the most respected coaches in league history and is currently the second-longest-tenured. Postseason success has been elusive since he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl title after the 2012 season, with Baltimore failing to advance past the divisional round until this year’s breakthrough.

But that’s not the only record Harbaugh will be seeking to improve when the Chiefs come to town: He’s 2-5 against Reid.