The NFC playoff picture is crowded and full of teams that could win the conference. In the AFC, conventional wisdom would say there are only two teams — the Steelers and the defending champion Patriots — that could win the conference.
The Ravens have a championship-level defense, but can the offense hold its own in the postseason?
I’ve been impressed with the Ravens’ recent string of victories, and I started looking at them as a possible repeat of the 2010 Green Bay Packers, a sixth-seed wild card team finishing strong and winning the Super Bowl. The Ravens have won three in a row, beating backup quarterbacks twice and the banged up Lions.
Baltimore is led by its defense, and defense wins championships. The Ravens are fifth in defensive yards per play. It’s an attacking defense which often confuses pass protections as evidenced below. The Lions just don’t notice Eric Weddle coming down on the edge and he crushes Stafford.
The run defense isn’t too shabby either, allowing 3.9 yards per carry (ninth best). The Ravens rush defense had some issues for a five-game stretch early in the season when nose tackle Brandon Williams was out. Since he’s been back, the Ravens haven’t allowed more than 78 rushing yards in a game.
The Ravens have the most interceptions in the NFL (20), and they’re fifth in red zone defense. They’re first in turnover differential and +73 in point differential. Lastly, the Ravens have only allowed 400 yards once this season, against the Jaguars in London. The defense is beastly.
Offensively, the Ravens scare me, and not in a good way. They’re below average in most offensive statistical categories — last in yards per play, No. 18 in rush yards per attempt, No. 30 in third downs.
Joe Flacco is only averaging 5.5 yards per attempt, which is the lowest of his career. If Flacco hadn’t won a Super Bowl, the Ravens would probably be trying to replace him. Alex Collins is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, but when you study his stats closer, they tend to be best when playing poor rushing defenses.
Here’s a big run from Sunday that shows his abilities when given a good hole.
Last thing on the Ravens front: no surprise to anyone, they have the No. 1 special teams unit. That can create field position, help a poor offense and bolster a defense as well. That goes a long way in the playoffs.
If you look at the overall picture for the Ravens, they aren’t the 2010 Packers. Not close. The Packers had a top-five defense and an offense led by Aaron Rodgers. They could do it on both ends.
The Ravens compare more closely to the 2015 Broncos. Excellent defense — still not as good as those Broncos — and an offense that just gets it done. That worries me. If you look back many years, there hasn’t been a Super Bowl offense with such a poor offensive yards per play (just 4.5 yards for the Ravens). Even the 2015 Broncos were middle of the road in offensive yards per play.
If the Ravens can’t move the ball at New England, Tom Brady will find a way to score. Same goes against the Steelers, who the Ravens lost to in Week 4. Their rematch this weekend will tell me plenty about their prospects for a deep playoff run.
Don’t be surprised if the Jaguars go deep in the playoffs. Really.
When I started researching about the Ravens, I noticed the Jaguars have similarities to the Ravens, except they don’t have a quarterback who’s won a Super Bowl. On offense, the Jaguars can run the football and control the tempo of the game — No. 16 in yards per play (5.3) and first in rush yards a game (149.4). They’re a downhill rushing team. Here against the Browns, you can see it’s a power play with Leonard Fournette breaking it outside while beating a safety to the edge.
They also aren’t the complete disaster in the passing game as previous seasons. Blake Bortles is below average in most categories, but this season he’s not turning the ball over. He’s been more efficient than recent years, throwing the ball downfield a tad more. Their passing game can do just enough to compliment the defense and rushing attack.
The Jaguars are carried by their stellar pass defense, including their pass rush. It’s tops in the NFL for a reason. It helps having shutdown corners too. Check out this video I did about their pass rush.
However, they weirdly have a terrible rushing defense, near the bottom in the NFL in stopping the run, even though the defense is still first in yards per play. The Jaguars are also +12 in turnover margin and +121 in point differential. Both stats that correlate well to postseason success.
The Jaguars will have to win with their style of game in the playoffs — run the ball, don’t turn it over, and let the pass defense take control. If they are playing from ahead, they can force teams to pass, which is exactly what they want.
That goes for both the Ravens and Jaguars: they both need to win their way and play from ahead. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually trust the Jaguars more than the Ravens to win in the postseason.
I still strongly believe the Patriots will win the AFC, but don’t sleep on the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. Don’t let me down, Blake.