Making the playoffs is great. Winning in the playoffs is better.
The Ravens have made the postseason for the first time in four years, and they are AFC North champs for the first time since 2012. Now it’s time to get greedy, to want more, and the Ravens are thinking that way.
“I think this team is built for playoff football, and I think we’re mentally tougher than anyone out there, with what we’ve been through,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said.
“Not just this season, but past seasons. I feel like we can go into any situation and battle our tails off and have a chance to win. This group is a special group, we play for each other. We play for our coaches and our coaches play for us. We win as a team and lose as a team, and when you have that bond, anything is possible.”
The Ravens will start their playoff journey Sunday when they host the Los Angeles Chargers in a wild-card matchup. Here are five reasons the Ravens can make a deep playoff run:
The ball-control running attack
The NFL is a passing league, but running the football remains important. Five out of the top six teams in rushing yards this season made the playoffs – Seattle (first), Baltimore (second), Los Angeles Rams (third), New England Patriots (fourth), and New Orleans Saints (sixth).
The Ravens have been the NFL’s top rushing team since Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback, averaging 229.5 yards rushing per game and going 6-1 in the process. In Week 16, the Chargers held Jackson to his lowest rushing total (39 yards, 13 carries) in his seven starts, but Gus Edwards ran for 92 yards and Baltimore still had 159 yards rushing and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
If no opponent contains the Ravens’ rushing attack during the playoffs, they will continue to be what they have been for two months – a difficult team to beat.
The NFL’s No.1-ranked defense
Nobody needs to tell Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers how good the Raves are defensively. Baltimore held Rivers to a season-low 147 yards passing in Week 16.
Baltimore checks off many boxes defensively – strong against the run, strong pass rush, versatile and deep secondary. And lately, the Ravens have been forcing turnovers. Even with breakdowns in the secondary against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the Ravens had three interceptions and made enough big plays to win. Baltimore has nine takeaways over the last five games, after getting just eight takeaways in the first 11 games.
When the Ravens faced the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14, Baltimore had 15 quarterback hits on Patrick Mahomes. To reach the Super Bowl, the Ravens will have to take down some top quarterbacks – Rivers, and possibly Mahomes, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, or Deshaun Watson. But no team has a defense that is better equipped to do it.
Starting the playoffs at home makes the path a little easier
The Ravens have shown they can win on the road, but with Jackson as the starter, they are 4-0 at home. Don’t dismiss the Chargers’ ability to win at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. They were 7-1 on the road this season, the best road record in the AFC. But avoiding another 3,000-mile trip to California and starting the playoffs in front of their home fans was in the Ravens’ best interests.
The Ravens are healthy, and peaking at the right time
You could make a case that the Ravens are the NFL’s hottest team right now. The Indianapolis Colts have won four straight, but the Chiefs, Houston Texans, and New England Patriots have not been as consistent in December as they were earlier in the season. Having a first-round bye would have been nice, but both times the Ravens won the Super Bowl (2000, 2012), they did so without the benefit of a bye.
The Ravens haven’t made a roster transaction since Dec. 1, and all 53 players were healthy for Week 17. Head Coach John Harbaugh said it's been big, and "the fact that we were healthy, the healthiest we’ve been all year, credit goes to the players for how hard they work and for our strength and conditioning and performance people. What a great job they’ve done. The continuity of practice and then games and having a full roster is really important.”
The Ravens are entering the playoffs hot and healthy – two qualities that are extremely important.
Harbaugh has been down this road before
Harbaugh has a 10-5 postseason record, including a Super Bowl championship, and he is 5-0 in opening-round playoff games. This has been a challenging season for the entire coaching staff, after a 4-5 start and changing the offense at midseason to accentuate Jackson’s strengths. But the Ravens have reached the postseason as a dangerous team, and during Harbaugh’s tenure, they have been a very tough team to eliminate. There is little reason to think this postseason will be different.