If you sleep on the Tennessee Titans' passing attack, trying to stop them can become a nightmare.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is more dangerous than he's ever been, operating in a play-action passing game that plays to his strengths. He threw a career-high 33 touchdown passes this season, tied with Deshaun Watson and Ben Roethlisberger for seventh-most in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (70 catches, 1,075 yards, 11 touchdowns) had his first 1,000-yard season while wide receiver Corey Davis (65 catches, 984 yards, five touchdowns) also had his best year.
The responsibility of covering Brown and Davis will fall on Baltimore's exceptional cornerback rotation featuring Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith and Anthony Averett. Smith has missed the last two games (ribs/shoulder), but he was a limited participant in Thursday's practice and the Ravens hope he can play Sunday.
Peters said the Ravens' defense is looking forward to the challenge of facing a dangerous offense.
"It starts with Derrick Henry," Peters said. "With a back like him, what he's been doing over these past years is amazing, man. He's rushed for 2,000 yards, and only a few backs have only done that in the league. So, you put him up there and it stands by itself, and then you just add on to everything else that they do with the dynamic plays they have with the receivers. We just have to just do our part and we'll be alright."
Teams that face the Titans have no choice but to focus on stopping Henry. But when opponents sell out to contain Henry, the Titans are very adept at completing downfield throws to one of their talented receivers.
Even when you know Tannehill is going to throw deep, it doesn't mean he'll be stopped. A perfectly-thrown deep ball from Tannehill to Brown in the final seconds of their Week 17 victory over the Houston Texans set up the game-winning field goal that sent Tennessee into the playoffs.
There were times early in Tannehill's career when he was referred to as a "game-manager," a quarterback who ran the offense but wasn't expected to make big plays. But that definition no longer fits. He has hurt the Ravens with big plays in their two most recent meetings, and Baltimore's pass defense will have to be solid to prevent that from happening again on Sunday.
"The pass game is built off the run game, and Ryan Tannehill runs it exceptionally well," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He throws it on time. He throws it very accurately. He can make all of the throws. He can make throws on the inside, outside, short (or) deep. He'll throw it on the move. He'll keep it and run and get first downs that way.
"I hate some of the terms that get used. I think he's much better than a lot of people have given him credit for over the years."
The tackling of the Ravens' secondary and entire defense will be tested. It often takes gang-tackling to get Henry on the ground, but the same is true with Tennessee's receivers. Both Brown (6-foot-0, 227 pounds) and Davis (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) can be punishing runners once they catch the football. They're not looking for a soft place to go down. They're looking to score.
Brown displayed that emphatically during the Titans' 30-24 overtime victory in Baltimore in November, when he took a short pass from Tannehill and broke four tackles to barrel his way into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown. Brown finished with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, while Davis had five catches for 113 yards, including a 50-yard reception in the third quarter.
The Ravens are physical on both sides of the football, and so are the Titans. That's part of what makes this playoff matchup intriguing.
"I think that any game that's a physical game is a game that people like to watch – the gladiators in the arena," Ravens Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. "So, I think those are the type of games that you're talking about when you're talking about rivalry games. It's going to be a tough, hard-fought game. I remember the hit – Ray Lewis on Eddie George, on the one pass play where he stole the ball from him. You just … You remember all those different things, and that's the way these games are."
The Ravens' chances of winning go way up if they can eliminate Tennessee's big plays. The Titans relied on their offense to carry them to the playoffs. They ranked third in the NFL in total offense, but the Titans gave up at least 30 points in half of their games and their defense ranked 27th overall, the lowest defensive ranking among the 14 teams that made the playoffs.
But Tannehill is on top of his game, tight end Jonnu Smith has also caught a touchdown pass in each of his last two games against Baltimore, and Tennessee' wideouts are proven threats. Stopping Tannehill from making plays won't be easy, but Martindale says the Ravens look forward to the matchup.
"They're catch-after-run guys, and they can also try to go by you, too," Martindale said. "With their quarterback, with their running back, with their tight ends and with their wide receivers, it's a great challenge. But isn't that what it's supposed to be in the playoffs? I think so."