Ravens Are No. 1 Seed But Are They the Best Team in AFC?
The Ravens are currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but are they truly the best team in the conference?
Sports Illustrated’s Gilberto Manzano tackled the question in his "Fact or Fiction" column and concluded that the Ravens (8-3) being the best team in the AFC is fiction.
"The Ravens appear to be one of the two best teams in the AFC, but they're not the best in the conference," Manzano wrote. "The Chiefs remain the top team in the AFC, because they have proven they can win Super Bowls."
Manzano's article was written prior to the Chiefs (7-3) losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, 21-17, on "Monday Night Football," but it seems unlikely that the result would change his opinion.
"We've seen this Ravens movie before, with a Lamar Jackson-led offense cruising through the regular season only to miss out on postseason success," Manzano wrote. "There are too many unknowns with the Ravens. Can the 2019 MVP and his pass-catchers play from behind if they don't jump to an early lead in the postseason? Can Baltimore's pass rush create pressure playing from behind? The defense has been as good as the Chiefs' defense, but the Ravens don't have as much talent or youth as Kansas City's unit. And yes, the Chiefs have struggled offensively this season, but they earn the benefit of the doubt because of what Patrick Mahomes has done the past few seasons. Perhaps Jackson can turn the doubters into believers by guiding the Ravens to the No. 1 seed in the AFC."
Manzano's point about the Chiefs earning the benefit of the doubt because of past success (they've represented the AFC in three of the past four Super Bowls, winning two) is fair. It's also fair to point out that the Ravens have not made a deep playoff run in the Jackson era.
However, the narrative that the Ravens can't play from behind in the postseason probably isn't fair.
They erased a 10-point deficit to beat the Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round in 2021, and last January they rallied from a seven-point deficit against the Cincinnati Bengals in the third quarter to tie the game and were one yard away from taking the lead before Tyler Huntley's fumble was returned for the game-winning touchdown.
Moreover, the Ravens have a more balanced offense and more weapons in the passing game this season than in years past. The Chiefs' biggest weakness, on the other hand, is at wide receiver. Multiple drops cost them a win against the Eagles.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the Ravens to capture the No. 1 seed is their schedule. Baltimore still has to play at NFC West leader San Francisco (7-3) and AFC South leader Jacksonville (7-3), and at home against AFC East leader Miami (7-3) and AFC North rival Pittsburgh (6-4). Kansas City faces just one team that currently has a winning record: Buffalo (6-5) at home.
If the Ravens and Chiefs both win out, Kansas City would be the top seed by virtue of a better conference record.
Ravens' Pass Rush Borrows From Basketball
The Ravens' league-best pass rush this season has been the product of teamwork. The Baltimore Banner's Jonas Shaffer observed that the unit operates much like a basketball team, and that's the way they talk about it inside meeting rooms as well.
"No pass rush in the NFL has been better than the Ravens', which leads the league with 44 sacks, tied for the most over the first 11 weeks of a season since at least 2000, according to TruMedia. Perhaps that's because no pass rush borrows as much from basketball," Shaffer wrote. "The Ravens' top four pass rushers all played the sport in high school, and another played in college. Their pass rush guru, Chuck Smith, encourages players to think of the craft in basketball terms. The plays themselves evoke comparisons in the team's locker room to screens and corner 3-pointers, to defensive traps and games of one-on-one."
Case in point:
"A few weeks ago, safety Geno Stone was in a defensive meeting, reviewing film of the Ravens' pass rush," Shaffer wrote. "One clip stood out, a pet play of Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald's: Inside linebacker Patrick Queen steamrolls into the guard blocking defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, blindsiding him and clearing Madubuike's path to the passer. It was a football play that looked a lot like a basketball staple: the pick-and-roll."
"Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who played basketball early in high school before dropping the sport to focus on football and baseball, told Shaffer: "How you set up your whole offense in basketball is just the same way you do it on defense for the pass rush, honestly. Everybody's doing their job and being able to sacrifice for the other person. Honestly, that's all it is, is commitment, hard work between the five [players in basketball], and then just grinding it out. And when you've got your layup, make a layup. Got your shot, take a shot, make it. It's really all the same, honestly."
Jackson Voted One of NFL's Top Players by His Peers
The respect Jackson's peers have for his ability was reflected in a new anonymous player poll. The Athletic asked 85 players to name the best player in the game today, and Jackson placed fifth.
Mahomes was the runaway winner, followed by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. Jackson finished one spot ahead of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
Jackson is having his best season since 2019, when he became the second unanimous league MVP in NFL history.
Meanwhile, ESPN's Dan Graziano named Jackson the NFL's most important player over the remaining seven weeks.
"Jackson hasn't been healthy enough to finish either of the past two seasons, so first he has to show he can stay on the field," Graziano wrote. "Second, he just lost his favorite receiving target, tight end Mark Andrews, to what likely is a season-ending ankle injury. He has to show he's able to adapt as a passer and a team leader without Andrews.
"I have no doubt about Jackson's ability to do any of this. He's as talented and dedicated as any player in the league, and Andrews told me in a conversation a couple of weeks ago that Jackson 'has really taken it to another level as a leader this year, which I wouldn't have thought he could do because he was already such a great leader.' A big stretch run for Jackson and the Ravens could lead to a second MVP award and possibly even the trophy he really craves — the Lombardi."