Assessing Threat Levels of Teams Vying With Ravens for Playoff Berths
In yesterday's Late for Work, we looked at the Ravens' playoffs odds in several analytical models. Today, we'll focus on the teams the Ravens are competing with for playoff spots.
As noted yesterday, if the Ravens (7-5) win their four remaining games, their chances of playing in the postseason greatly increase. A 10-6 record may not be good enough in the AFC this season, even with the playoff field expanded from six teams to seven.
The Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) have already clinched a playoff berth, and the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) and Buffalo Bills (9-3) could do so this weekend. That leaves six teams vying for the four remaining spots. That's not counting the New England Patriots (6-7), whose playoff hopes were dealt a significant blow with last night's loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
One factor not in the Ravens' favor is that one of the playoff tiebreakers is conference record, as they currently have the worst AFC mark (4-5) of the six teams heading into Monday night's game at Cleveland.
The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec analyzed the teams in the hunt (in order of their current seeding) and assessed their threats level to the Ravens:
Tennessee Titans (8-4)
Remaining schedule: at Jaguars (1-11), vs. Lions (5-7), at Packers (9-3), at Texans (4-8)
The Titans and Indianapolis Colts are tied for first in the AFC South but Tennessee currently holds the tiebreaker. Tennessee holds the head-to-head advantage over the Ravens.
Threat level: "Moderate. After last year's playoff debacle, Ravens fans would take great delight in a late-season Titans collapse. However, the Ravens don't necessarily need Tennessee to falter. Somebody is going to win the AFC South."
Cleveland Browns (9-3)
Remaining schedule: vs. Ravens (7-5), at Giants (5-7), at Jets (0-12), vs. Steelers (11-1)
The Browns are in the driver's seat in the wild-card race and still have a shot at winning the AFC North. Cleveland has won four straight and is coming off a statement-making 41-35 win over the Titans that wasn't as close as the final score would suggest. A win in Cleveland Monday night would be especially huge for the Ravens because it would give them a season sweep and move them within one game of the Browns with three games remaining.
Threat level: "High. The Browns just keep winning and keep improving. At 9-3, they also don't have a whole lot left to do to punch their postseason ticket."
Miami Dolphins (8-4)
Remaining schedule: vs. Chiefs (11-1), vs. Patriots (6-7), at Raiders (7-5), at Bills (9-3)
Not many expected the Ravens to have a worse record at this point in the season than Miami, which lost its first seven games last year, including a 59-10 beatdown by the Ravens in Week 1. The Dolphins have the toughest schedule remaining of the playoff contenders.
Threat level: "Moderate. It's not that I don't believe in the Dolphins. They are clearly building something down in South Florida. However, the NFL did them no favors with that division schedule, even that New England game. Do you think Bill Belichick is going to roll over and allow a division rival and one of his former assistants to stroll into the playoffs?"
Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
Remaining schedule: at Raiders (7-5), vs. Texans (4-8), at Steelers (11-1), vs. Jaguars (1-11)
The Ravens hold the head-to-head advantage over the Colts, but if Indianapolis wins the AFC South instead of the Titans, that won't matter.
Threat level: "High. That's only because the Colts have a relatively comfortable road to 10 or 11 wins, and that means the Ravens might need to win out to keep pace."
Las Vegas Raiders (7-5)
Remaining schedule: vs. Colts (8-4), vs. Chargers (3-9), vs. Dolphins (8-4), at Broncos (4-8)
The Raiders are an enigma. They've beaten the Chiefs (and nearly swept them) and Saints, currently the top seeds in AFC and NFC, respectively. However, in Las Vegas' past two games, it got blown out by the Falcons (4-8) and needed a last-second, improbable touchdown pass to edge the winless Jets.
Threat level: "Moderate. A Hail Mary of sorts and an egregiously bad decision by now ex-Jets Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams saved them Sunday, but the Raiders are going to need to play much better football than they have over the past few weeks to secure one of the last playoff spots."
Chiefs' Travis Kelce Says Ravens Have the Squad to Make a Postseason Run
The Chiefs are favored to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce isn't counting out the possibility of the Ravens making a postseason run.
"Y'all know both of y'all have the squad to make a run at it, though," Kelce told Mark Ingram II and Saints defensive end Cam Jordan on the "Truss Levelz" podcast. "And that's the biggest thing, if you know you've got the squad to make a run, that's half the battle right there. The other half is staying healthy and making plays, man."
The "staying healthy" part of the equation has been the biggest challenge for the Ravens this season. All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle are done for the season, which is a major blow. However, if the defense can get healthy, the Ravens could very well make a deep postseason run, Ebony Bird's Chris Schisler wrote.
"The old saying goes that in the playoffs you have to have a run game and good defense. In theory, the defense is something the Ravens have. The run game is strong for the Ravens," Schisler wrote. "When Lamar Jackson gets going and just plays his game, the Ravens have a chance to run the ball at an elite level. If the run game and strong defense are the two special ingredients the Ravens have that."
NFL.com's Nick Shook wrote: "The Ravens won't make a quarterback's day a nightmare, but they will cause him to be consistently frustrated. Baltimore ranks eighth in yards per game, and is even better at limiting the opponent in the most important category: scoring. The Ravens are the third-best unit in points allowed per game and excellent at getting off the field, also standing as the league's third-best unit on third down."
A major difference between the 2020 Ravens and 2019 Ravens is that this year's team, if it qualifies for the playoffs, will not have the high expectations last year's team did. That could work to their advantage.
"The playoffs are a scary time to be playing an underdog," Schisler wrote. "There's a reason the NFL champion isn't crowned the second the playoff seeds are filled. … If the Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns convincingly, and take care of business against a theoretically easy schedule, you're going to be excited about the postseason. You should be."
Did Jihad Ward Earn More Playing Time With Performance Against Cowboys?
Outside linebacker Jihad Ward was one of the Ravens' unsung heroes in their 24-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys Tuesday night. Playing in his first game since Week 6, Ward made the most of his opportunity.
"Ward, who had been a healthy scratch for five consecutive games after the acquisition of Yannick Ngakoue, played his butt off," The Athletic's Zrebiec wrote. "He had the team's only sack and had four of its five quarterback hits."
Ward, a 2016 second-round pick by the Raiders, made a strong impact on the defensive line last season after the Ravens signed him in October. His performance against the Cowboys should earn him more playing time, Zrebiec said.
"Even when Matthew Judon comes back, the Ravens need to find a way to keep Ward in the defensive game plan," Zrebiec wrote.