Wild Card Preview: Ravens (12-4) @ Chiefs (10-6)

First things first. With reports coming out Friday evening that Ed Reed’s brother is missing in Louisiana, after apparently jumping into the Mississippi River to elude police, the All-Pro safety’s status for Sunday was suddenly very much up in the air. Around 1 PM Saturday though, it was reported that Reed WILL PLAY Sunday. Our thoughts are certainly with Reed and his family during what could be a very tragic situation. We’re a football site and football fans though, so we’ll also hope for not only a happy ending to this story, but that Reed has his head on straight and is at his best for the game. A cerebral player like Reed can’t afford to be distracted and maintain his usual level of play.

The Ravens will be playing in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL on Sunday. The Chiefs’ fans, who have not seen a home playoff win since 1993, will be amped beyond belief, and eager to make life hell for Joe Flacco and company. The Ravens, who false start with alarming frequency even when playing in front of a home crowd, will need to first and foremost cut down on the pre-snap penalties which have served to put the offense behind the eight ball time and again throughout the season.

Once the ball is snapped – again, hoping that he waits that long – Michael Oher will have his hands full with Chiefs’ linebacker Tamba Hali. Hali racked up 14.5 sacks in 2010, good for second best in the NFL behind Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware. The offensive line as a whole has been alarmingly porous in recent weeks, as Flacco has been sacked four or more times in 5/9 games since the bye week. Flacco went an entire game without being sacked just once this season – Week 3 against Cleveland. He stayed upright all game 4 times in 2008, and twice in 2009. For the Ravens to have success in the postseason, they’ll need to do a much better job of protecting their quarterback. It would also help if Cam Cameron would mix up his formations a little better as well, and put Joe back in the shotgun where he seems to do his best work. For his part, Flacco would do well to start getting the ball out of his hands quicker.

The Chiefs finished 2010 right in the middle of the pack on defense, 17th against the pass and 14th versus the run. They were gashed by Oakland in Week 17, when Michael Bush ran for 137 yards. Watching NFL Playbook this week, Ravens fans were encouraged by the huge holes that the Raiders were able to open up against the Chiefs on their home turf. After breaking out against New Orleans, Ray Rice had more moderate success the last two weeks against Cleveland and Cincinnati, averaging 3.7 and 3.9 yards per carry. Expect a heavy dose of Rice early, though, and the Ravens would also be wise to get Willis McGahee’s relatively fresh legs involved more in the game plan. It would be nice to see Cam try to open up some running lanes by passing early, but it’s doubtful – based on his M.O. throughout the year – that he will choose to have Flacco challenge the Chiefs’ young but talented secondary unless he has to.

Again, I’d love to see Anquan Boldin bust out like he did in the first half of the season as much as the rest of you would, but we just have no reason to believe that will be the case until proven otherwise.

The Chiefs’ offense boasts the league’s #1 running attack. Third-year back Jamaal Charles has had an outstanding season, averaging an incredible 6.4 yards per carry.

That’s right James Van Der Beek…6.4 YARDS PER CARRY!

Charles does his most damage on the outside runs, so the Ravens’ corners will need to be ready to support the run defense. Lately, Lardarius Webb has excelled in this area, coming up and hitting like a safety. Unfortunately, on the other side Josh Wilson suffered a concussion against Cincinnati. He is listed as questionable, so let’s hope he isn’t hesitant in his tackling, because all Charles needs is a speck of daylight to suddenly be 50 yards down the field. Charles was held under 4 yards per carry in a game just once all season, so it’s a bit unrealistic to expect the Ravens to completely shut him down. I’d say holding him to anywhere in the 3.5-4.5 ypc range should be considered a success. The main thing will be to make sure he doesn’t break any 20+ yard runs, which he’s done in three of the last five games.

Charles’ running mate is veteran Thomas Jones. Jones is the Chiefs’ between-the-tackles back, and shouldn’t be as much of a concern for the Ravens. While Charles is the Chris Johnson-type that has given B’More problems, Jones strikes me as the kind of back that they will eat up. The run defense has been extremely stout down the stretch, which gives the Ravens a distinct advantage against Kansas City.

The reason shutting down the run will be crucial is that Matt Cassel has never faced the Ravens’ defense and Ed Reed. Even guys like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer – as we saw last week – still have trouble accounting for Reed despite being very familiar with him. Reed will need to be free to roam center field at Arrowhead, where he can help take away big play wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. If Charles and Jones are gashing the defensive line and getting into the second level consistently, Reed and Dawan Landry will be forced to come up in the box more, which makes the play action and Dwayne Bowe much more dangerous.

As always, it starts with stopping the run. Bowe is really, really good, and will likely get his handful of catches and approach 100 yards. But he has over twice as many receiving yards as the next guy on the list for the Chiefs.  As a result of the Chiefs’ Bowe-focused passing attack, I’ll definitely take Reed over Cassel for a four-quarter span.

The Chiefs gave up a fair amount of sacks as well, including seven last week to the Raiders. Terrell Suggs in particular has a very favorable match-up, going against left tackle Brandon Albert. Albert, a graduate of Glen Burnie High School, gave up eight sacks in his fifteen starts in 2010. I don’t know about you, but I’d say a “Gopher” has zero chance against Sizzle.

With game-time temperatures in the 20’s expected, Billy Cundiff’s kickoff skills may not be on full display. He struggled to get the ball into the end zone in the colder games down the stretch. However, kick returner David Reed is expected to return. Reed led the NFL in kickoff return average after winning the job midseason, and could provide a nice spark.

Kansas City has the home field advantage, but the Ravens have the distinct advantage of recent playoff experience. The Chiefs are a young team on the rise, but the veteran presence of Baltimore will wear down the home squad. The Ravens know exactly how to go into hostile territory and quiet an opposing crowd, having done it in Miami, Tennessee, and New England in recent years. Let’s take care of business at Arrowhead, and force Chiefs fans to wait at least another year before seeing that long-awaited postseason win.

Ravens 23 Chiefs 17


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