John Harbaugh called Sunday’s Baltimore-Tennessee bout the biggest win of his career. The guy has won a Super Bowl and has the most road playoff wins in league history, but the case makes sense, given where the Ravens were a couple weeks ago, where they were a year ago and where they were a couple years ago.
Six weeks ago, the Ravens entered a must-win game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers with a roster decimated by the COVID pandemic. Baltimore didn’t win and fell to 6-5, but showed its guts against an undefeated Steeler squad and embarked on a five-game win streak to punch a ticket to the playoffs.
A year ago, the 14-2 Ravens and MVP Lamar Jackson were upset at home by the Tennessee Titans, who had slipped into the playoffs by the slimmest of margins and then took it to the Patriots and Ravens. Jackson’s turnover-prone performance added fuel to the doubters’ fire and ended a season that looked bound for the Super Bowl (I ranted about it here).
Three years ago, coach John Harbaugh was on the hot seat, despite five playoff appearances and a Lombardi trophy to his name. An offense spearheaded by Joe Flacco was ineffective at best and fell short of the playoffs in December losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in back-to-back years. A quarterback from Louisville would arrive via the draft the next year, only after owner Steve Bisciotti gave Harbaugh another chance.
So there’s reason for the Ravens to think of their Wild Card road win as more than just another game.
Early on, the game looked to be a rehashing of the Tennessee-Baltimore playoff matchup from the 2019 playoffs. Lamar Jackson missed badly on a deep ball to Miles Boykin, resulting in an early turnover. On the other end, Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill tore up the Baltimore secondary (read: Marlon Humphrey) with his favorite weapon and Raven nightmare A.J. Brown. By the end of the quarter, the Titans had a 10-0 lead, a deficit that Baltimore had never overcome in the Jackson era.
The game flipped on a third and 10 from midfield that will rank among the greatest plays in Baltimore sports history. Jackson danced around in the pocket, then scampered out, cut to the right sideline and strided past Titans defenders in a 20 mph dash to the end zone. The run was the second-longest touchdown run by a quarterback in postseason history, but more importantly, it gave Baltimore a burst of momentum.
Jackson, who finished with 136 rushing yards and 179 through the air, was the hero and reversed the narrative that he couldn’t win playoff games. But the shocker of the game — a Baltimore rushing defense that allowed Derrick Henry, the guy who rushed for over 2,000 yards in the regular season, to 40 yards on 18 carries and no scores.
Tennessee still had opportunities to take the lead back in the final minutes. Down four with just over ten minutes left, the Titans punted from the Baltimore 40 instead of attempting a fourth and 4 conversion. After the Ravens converted their next drive into a Justin Tucker field goal, Tennessee blew a chance to tie the score when Marcus Peters intercepted a Tannehill pass. Jackson’s 33-yard streak down the sideline with 1:45 left sealed the win.
By virtue of the Browns’ electric 48-37 rout of Pittsburgh, the Ravens will travel to Buffalo to take on Josh Allen and the second-seeded Bills with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line. The Bills are an intimidating opponent with multiple offensive weapons, but considering the alternative — the 14-2 Kansas City Chiefs — the Ravens are probably content to head north. Baltimore has not lost to Buffalo since September 29, 2013 and held off Allen and the Bills in their 2019 matchup.
–Aaron Donald wreaks havoc. MVP hopeful Russell Wilson was out of his element on Saturday. Wilson finished the day with 11-27 passing, five sacks, and a paltry 17.6 ESPN QBR. Aaron Donald, the unguardable defensive tackle and likely Defensive Player of the Year, was responsible for two of them and pressured Wilson all game long. The defensive effort helped the road Rams overcome an ineffective quarterback situation (John Wolford left with injury, Jared Goff finished 9-19 for 155 yards) and upset the NFC West champions in the first major surprise of the playoffs.
-Baltimore stops Derrick Henry. In the Baltimore-Tennessee regular season matchup, Henry took over in the second half and overtime, rushing for 133 yards and the game-clinching score. Remember, all of this after Henry stiff-armed and pounded the Baltimore defense a year earlier in the playoffs. Yet Henry never got going as NFL fans expected and pretty much hamstrung the Tennessee offense, which kept calling his name instead of relying on Tannehill. Baltimore honed in on stopping Henry, putting eight defenders in the box on 72.22 percent of Henry’s carries — over 22 percent higher than the next highest rusher during the weekend. Henry’s longest carry on the day was eight yards. By the second half, Henry was getting subbed out on second and third down. It’s a bittersweet ending to a record-breaking season for the Heisman winner, and an encouraging sign for a Ravens defensive unit aiming to run all the way to the Super Bowl.
–NFL gets the Nickelodeon treatment. In an otherwise horrendous game between the 8-8 Chicago Bears and 12-4 New Orleans Saints, slime stole the show. The game was the first to be simulcast on Nickelodeon and the results were must-see, even if the action wasn’t remotely exciting or slimeworthy. The broadcast punctuated touchdowns (and near touchdowns) with computer-generated slime shooters in the end zone, compared Alvin Kamara to Alvin from Alvin and the Chipmunks and spiced up the NFL product for a younger audience. But the best element of the Nick broadcast came at the end when Mitch Trubisky supporters hijacked the NVP vote and ensured that Trubisky, the embattled Chicago quarterback on the wrong end of a 24-9 game, took home the award in perhaps his last game in a Bear uniform. Saints coach Sean Payton got the slime bucket dumped on him as he celebrated a well-earned victory. I got enough of the Nickelodeon experience to last me a year, but the game sure had its highlights.
–Tom Brady tests the deep ball. Washington deserves credit for keeping this one close and backup-turned-playoff starter Taylor Heinicke did everything Washington could expect and more. But the close result bodes well for Tampa Bay’s hopes going forward. For one, they’re still in. For another, Brady looked in sync with Bruce Arians’ vision for the Buccaneer offense. Brady hit four of six passes beyond 20 yards, including two touchdowns, and amassed 381 passing yards. The Buccaneers aren’t the NFC favorite, but there’s a path to the Super Bowl for the conference’s most dangerous wild card.
–It’s been a while. Forgive a couple of the weekend’s winners for celebrating their victories a little extra, because for some of these squads it’s been a while. Tampa Bay held off Washington (itself a franchise with a long playoff win drought) for its first playoff dub since Super Bowl XXXVII, also the last time a team with a healthy Tom Brady missed the playoffs. Buffalo, having already won its first AFC East division title since 1995, won its first playoff game in 25 years by knocking out Philip Rivers’ Colts. Cleveland’s win may have been the sweetest of all, a 48-37 blowout of hated division rival Pittsburgh. For these teams and their long-suffering fanbases, their Wild Card victories were well-deserved and surely savored.
A LOOK AHEAD
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers (4:35 ET, Saturday)
This matchup is certainly the most lopsided quarterback matchup on paper. Sean McVay’s confidence in his quarterback room is not simply “low” — it doesn’t exist. My expectation would be for Jared Goff to return to the starting lineup, and it’ll certainly help if running back Cam Akers replicates his 131-yard performance from Wild Card Weekend. I would totally rule out the warm weather Rams from winning a game in freezing Wisconsin against Aaron Rodgers, but that defense is just so dominant and Aaron Donald is so mesmerizing that I can imagine a path to victory. Still, I expect Rodgers to continue his MVP momentum after the bye week.
Score Prediction: Green Bay Packers 31, Los Angeles Rams 10
Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills (8:15 ET, Saturday)
The Ravens have dominated this matchup as of late, but this one could be the best one of the weekend. Draftmates Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson will have at it for the first time in the playoffs. Buffalo has an advantage in the passing attack if Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley are good to go, while Baltimore will look to its run game to control time of possession. The most interesting matchup, though, will be the opportunistic Raven secondary against Allen, who completed a weekend-high 74.3 percent of his passes against a good Colts defense. I don’t foresee the Ravens, a historically good franchise in road playoff games, being scared to go up to the tundra of Buffalo and play in primetime. This one should be close.
Score Prediction: Baltimore Ravens 29, Buffalo Bills 24
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs (3:05 ET, Sunday)
The Browns’ rumble to the playoffs picked up even more traction with Cleveland’s beatdown of Pittsburgh, setting up a Divisional Round matchup against the best team in the league, the Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland’s defense performed well early on against Ben Roethlisberger, but Mahomes is lightyears ahead of Roethlisberger now and will offer the Browns’ defense no such opportunities. They’ll also have to find a way to contain Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The Browns could certainly get something going in the rushing attack, but Mahomes should carve Cleveland’s much-maligned secondary.
Score Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs 42, Cleveland Browns 23
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (6:40 ET, Sunday)
Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady for perhaps the last time ever. The first two meetings between these NFC South foes resulted in lopsided New Orleans wins, and the final Divisional Round game will be in the Superdome. But there’s good reason to believe this matchup will be different. Playing a team three times in one season is a tremendous challenge and the Bucs’ offense appears to be rounding into form, especially with the deep ball. Each defense also poses a challenge and has the potential to shut down the opposing offensive attack. I could see this going either way, but I’ll take Tampa Bay in a close one.
Score Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30, New Orleans Saints 24