Eisenberg: Why the Titans Are an Ideal First-Round Foe

Ravens Defense

For a wild few minutes early Sunday evening, the identity of the Ravens' first-round playoff opponent was a total jump ball. Would it be the Indianapolis Colts or Tennessee Titans?

As this unfolded, some two-thirds of the Baltimore fans who voted in a quickie poll said they wanted it to be the Colts. That was no surprise. The Ravens beat them by two touchdowns earlier this season. The Titans, meanwhile, have haunted the Ravens lately, scoring a playoff upset last season and rallying to win a "revenge bowl" in overtime this season.

It wound up being the Titans when a last-second field goal attempt improbably doinked against an upright and sliced through, giving them a victory over the Houston Texans that secured a division title.

But while some Baltimore fans surely groaned about the prospect of another game against Derrick Henry, Tennessee's All-Pro running back and a certifiable Ravens-killer lately, I'm thinking this might well be the ideal path for the Ravens.

If we've learned anything about them in the past five weeks, it's that desperation suits them well.

After starting the season as serious Super Bowl contenders, they were one loss away from possibly not making the playoffs at all. They responded with a series of dominating performances, and now they're entering the postseason on a high, with their quarterback, Lamar Jackson, the reigning league MVP, at the top of his game.

Another playoff game against the Titans dovetails neatly with the desperation that has helped the Ravens soar since they were 6-5 and on the brink of missing the playoffs.

For a year, they've heard about how they let an opportunity slip away when they lost to Tennessee as the top seed in the AFC.

"I don't know why ya'll want to continue to talk about it," linebacker Matthew Judon told the media after Sunday's win in Cincinnati.

All playoff games, by definition, are urgent affairs, but it should heighten the Ravens' urgency that they're facing the Titans again – the true source of their misery.

Yes, they would be in a similar situation against the Colts, or for that matter, any first-round opponent. After losing their postseason opener in each of the past two years, the Ravens need a playoff win, period, to demonstrate they're progressing.

But doing it against the Titans would offer the clearest and most satisfying indication of such progress.

The Ravens rightfully pride themselves of playing sound, physical football, but the recent losses to the Titans have challenged their self-image and galled them to their core. In the playoff upset, the Titans whipped them on both sides of the ball. This season, the Ravens forgot how to tackle late in the game and watched a double-digit lead vanish. It hurt that the Titans were tougher.

Another game with Tennessee offers the chance to erase those statements, and in the Ravens' minds, set the record straight.

My hunch is their offense can score enough to get the job done. Jackson and the top-ranked rushing game are on serious rolls and the Titans' defense is having a tough time, having allowed 40 and 38 points in the team's final two regular-season games.

The question is whether the Ravens' defense can keep Henry from taking over. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and receiver A.J. Brown are also tough on defenses, but Henry has gained a total of 328 yards rushing in the Titans' last two wins over the Ravens.

It was Henry's dominance in last year's playoff game that convinced the Ravens of the need to overhaul their defensive front. As good as the 2019 team was, that was a relative soft spot.

The overhaul has included the additions of Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and Patrick Queen, who have fortified the rushing defense and, in theory, made the Ravens a more well-rounded team.

Injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak have kept the rushing defense from consistently realizing its full potential, but the effects of those issues are waning and, no doubt, the moment has arrived for the unit to make the statement the front office intended.

A playoff rematch with Henry and the Titans is a tough assignment. But it crystallizes exactly what the Ravens are desperate to avoid. That's hardly a bad thing.

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