By Norm Elrod
The Baltimore Ravens travel to Kansas City in Week 14 to take on the Chiefs. Both teams find themselves locked in tight division races and need to finish strong to ensure a playoff berth and favorable seeding.
The Ravens, riding a three-game winning streak, now have a legitimate shot at the AFC North title. They have matched the Pittsburgh Steelers in the win column with seven, but trail them in the standings due to the Steelers’ Week 1 tie. Winning out will put them in the postseason and possibly earn them the division, given that the Steelers still have to face the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. However, the Ravens’ December is no cakewalk either, with the Chiefs this week and the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16.
The Chiefs lead the AFC West, one game ahead of the Chargers in the win column with 10. They can clinch a playoff spot this week with a win, tie or some help, and, short of a complete collapse over the final month, they’ll move on to the postseason. But will they be a division winner with home-field advantage, or the League’s best wild card team? Their Week 15 matchup with the Chargers may give us some clarity.
Of course neither the Ravens nor the Chiefs can afford to look past the other, even with the complicated playoff picture. And each team has questions to answer on the offensive side of the ball, which certainly complicates things. Who should the Ravens start at quarterback? Can the Chiefs fill the hole in production left by Kareem Hunt’s release? Finding answers to those questions could key each team’s success the rest of the way.
The Ravens will likely start Lamar Jackson this Sunday, regardless of Joe Flacco’s status. He’s led the team the last three weeks, and been a positive influence on the reemerging run game and defense. Jackson, averaging 88.3 yards in his recent starts, is a threat with his legs, whenever he touches the ball. And defenses have to respect that. But given his poor passing performances, defenses can also play the run, knowing he’s unlikely to beat them downfield. Rookie running back Gus Edwards has also stepped up, averaging 105 yards per game over the team’s recent streak.
The Ravens’ strong ground game gives them an edge in the time-of-possession battle. The Jackson-led, run-first offense holds the ball for 37:20 per game, far and away the best in the League over the last three weeks. Dominating the clock keeps their defense off the field and fresher when they’re on the field. This incarnation of the Ravens D leads the NFL, unsurprisingly, though the team has fielded better units in its illustrious history. It only gives up 281.7 total yards per game, Oddly enough, they’ve struggled with forcing turnovers, ranking next to last on the season with nine so far.
They’ll face a Chiefs offense that does a pretty good job of protecting the football, especially considering their prodigious production. Second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes is lighting up the NFL, with 41 touchdown passes on the season so far. That leads second-place Andrew Luck by nine and third-place Drew Brees by 11. He’s also racked up 3,923 passing yards, which translates to 327 yards per game, both second in the NFL.
Mahomes lost a key weapon when Kareem Hunt was released before the team’s Week 13 matchup with the Oakland Raiders. Neither Spencer Ware nor Damien Williams did much with their additional touches last week. The Chiefs have now had a whole week to game plan for a matchup without their leading rusher. Then again, the Ravens defense does a much better job of stopping the run than the Raiders defense. So don’t expect anything like the production the Chiefs jettisoned from their roster.
The Chiefs defense hasn’t really been asked to stop opposing offenses, which is good, because it can’t. They rank near the bottom in some defensive categories, including total yards and passing yards per game. Much of that, frankly, may result from its own offense jumping out to early leads and opposing offenses trying to stay close. Be that as it may, the Chiefs defense will give up points, no matter the opponent. Look no further than the 33 points they handed the Raiders last week.
All that said, it seems the Chiefs’ defense is really just being asked to slow — rather than stop — opposing offenses. And that should be enough against a very one-dimensional Ravens squad. Lamar Jackson will get his yards on the ground, but will remain a minimal downfield threat. The Ravens’ rushing attack should allow them to control the clock and limit Chiefs’ offensive opportunities.
The Ravens defense should slow the Chiefs offense enough to keep the game close. Mahomes will continue to put up points, when given the opportunity, and Hunt will continue to be missed. Look for a close, relatively low-scoring game (for the Chiefs anyway) that Kansas City wins at home.
SportsLine analyst R.J. White has a slightly different take…
The Ravens are rolling on offense thanks to a rushing attack that has gained 200+ yards in three straight games. That run coincides with Lamar Jackson’s elevation to the starting lineup. This is the perfect team to take on the Chiefs, who rank 32nd in DVOA against the run and 31st in yards per carry allowed. Baltimore’s running game can limit the number of possessions for the Chiefs and keep them off the field, while the elite Baltimore defense can do enough to hold the Chiefs to a manageable point total. The Chiefs are 1-3-1 ATS after a 7-0 start, and the recent slump continues in this game.