Both the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills entered the AFC playoffs as two of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Ravens captured their last five games of the regular season, streaking to a wild-card bid after slumping to a 6-5 start, while the Bills earned their first AFC East title in 25 years by winning their final six. Both are sleeper picks to sneak past this year's heavy favorite, the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs, and into Super Bowl LV.
Each team squeaked into the AFC Divisional Round battle-tested after close wins that weren't decided until late in the fourth quarter. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had to sweat out his first playoff victory, a 20-13 nail-biter assured only when the defense intercepted Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill on his final drive. Josh Allen found himself in the same boat, left to watch as Philip Rivers' Hail Mary was batted down to preserve the Bills' first postseason win since 1995 over the Indianapolis Colts (27-24).
But close wins also come with an upside: getting the monkey and baggage of past history off your back. Can each team now recapture the late-season momentum that saw them barrel-rolling over opponents? A high-scoring game seems likely between two offenses that averaged more than 37 points per game during their winning streaks to end the regular season. Two teams once defined by their defense now ride on the backs of Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, and a 2020 MVP candidate in Allen.
Who will prevail in the first-ever postseason matchup between these two signal-callers, selected 25 picks apart in the 2018 NFL Draft? Here's a closer look at the keys to victory for each team Saturday night.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Baltimore at Buffalo
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 16 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Buffalo -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Josh Allen vs. Lamar Jackson. Enough said.
They came from the same NFL draft class (2018) that comprises three of the four quarterbacks still left in the AFC playoffs (add Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns). The third time's the charm for both Jackson and Allen, as they've taken a step forward with gritty playoff performances.
For Jackson, it wasn't always pretty. He was sacked five times by the Titans, threw for only 179 yards, and produced a costly interception on the game's second drive. But it felt like the 2019 league MVP settled in as time went on, rushing for 136 yards, including a 48-yard burst for a touchdown in the second quarter as the Ravens were able to overcome an early 10-0 deficit.
"We just battled," Jackson said afterward, erasing an 0-6 career record when the Ravens had fallen behind by 10 or more points. "I knew we had the capability of doing that."
Gritty leadership was on display in Buffalo as well. Allen arguably played better overall, throwing for 324 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for another, and playing turnover-free football. Yet it was his late sack and fumble (self-recovered) that killed a late fourth-quarter drive and gave the Colts a chance to pull an upset.
"Made enough plays to win," Allen said after becoming the youngest QB in NFL history to complete better than 70 percent of his passes and throw for 300-plus yards in a playoff game. "I'm still kicking myself for a couple plays... you gotta forget about it and focus on next week. It doesn't matter what we did — it's back to 0-0."
Jackson and Allen have the ability to score at will, regardless of defense. Who's capable of producing the most big plays? One potential handicap for Jackson is the weather in Buffalo; game-time temperature is forecasted to be less than 27 degrees. The quarterback, who's said he's never played in the snow, is a weaker passer than Allen and could find his mobility limited. You never know when the lake-effect snow squalls are going to come in Buffalo.
2. Can the Buffalo defense step up?
Then again, Jackson will be facing a Bills defense that allowed an eye-popping 472 yards against the Colts. It's the most Buffalo has allowed in any game since Sept. 27, and it included two important goose eggs: no sacks or interceptions against an aging, pocket quarterback in Philip Rivers.
How will that unit rise up against the biggest dual-threat quarterback in the NFL? The Bills have done it before, holding Jackson to just 145 passing yards and 40 rushing in a December 2019 regular-season matchup. But Jackson has more weapons in 2021 and a better running game to throw the defense off-balance. Indeed, the emergence of J.K. Dobbins (43 yards and a touchdown against the Titans) has been a game-changer. Stopping the run is now a multi-pronged effort, although it still starts with the quarterback.
"It's a totally different style offense than any team that we ever face," Bills safety Jordan Poyer explained this week. "They have every single QB run you can think of, so it comes down to guys being disciplined with their eyes and being able to tackle out in space and having 11 guys running to the football."
As always, putting pressure on Jackson can be the difference-maker. Even in that December 2019 matchup, the Bills were only able to get to him once; they still lost that game 24-17. They're going to need to up that number and add to their regular-season 26 takeaways (fourth in the NFL) to put the Ravens behind the eight ball, as the Titans did early.
Field goals? You're telling me one of the best AFC Divisional Playoff offensive matchups in years is going to come down to the kickers?
Typically, that's a non-starter. But this matchup features future Hall of Famer Justin Tucker of the Ravens, as automatic of a kicker as you have in the NFL, against a strong upstart in rookie Tyler Bass. Bass boomed a 54-yard field goal in the fourth quarter against the Colts, the longest kick by a rookie in NFL playoff history and ultimately the difference-maker in a 27-24 win. He hasn't missed a field goal since November and ended the season third in scoring, cementing his hold on an always-tenuous position long-term.
Tucker was his reliable self in 2020, making 89.7 percent of his kicks. But it was Bass, not Tucker, who made more field goals from 50-plus yards this season. Can both men hang tough under the pressure of playoff football, when an extra point or a field goal makes the difference in a game with a 2.5-point spread? With both teams likely to be in position to score on almost every possession, which one will blink first? Again, you'd think Tucker has the edge, but he missed on a 52-yarder against the Titans last week that would have put the game away.
This game, on paper, is the most competitive of the four NFL Divisional Round matchups and could tilt either way. Both teams come in hot and have put the demons of playoff disappointments behind them.
In the end, the intangibles of the weather and home-field advantage favor the Bills. They were 7-1 at home this season, tied for the best record in the NFL. Since 1990, No. 2 seeds are also 22-9 in their first playoff game. The Bills extended that streak last week as the first non-bye No. 2 seed in the new playoff format. That experience should serve them well as they tough out another close game late in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Bills 34, Ravens 31
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.