Two big-play offenses fight it out for the third time in a year, this time in Nashville
By the time the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans kick things off for this Sunday's Wild Card Round matchup, it will have been 364 days since the Titans upset the heavily favored Ravens on their own turf in last season's divisional playoff game. Last year, the top-seeded Ravens were riding a historic rushing attack, an MVP season from Lamar Jackson, and a 12-game winning streak into what should have been a dominant playoff run. Aside from being the fifth seed this postseason, not too much has changed for the Ravens. They still run the ball historically well, Jackson is playing at an elite level, and their five-game winning streak makes them the hottest team in the AFC this side of the Buffalo Bills.
But the Titans have bested the Ravens in Baltimore more recently than last postseason. In Week 11 of this season, Tennessee topped Baltimore, 30-24 in overtime, capped off by Derrick Henry's 29-yard, walk-off touchdown run. The Titans rode their own high-powered offense this season, thanks in large part to Henry's league-leading (again) 2,027 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns, to their first AFC South crown since 2008. While the Tennessee offense ranks as one of the five best in the league, it's the Titans' bottom-dwelling defensive unit that could prove to be their fatal flaw in a quest for the franchise's first AFC title since 2000.
It's now the Titans' turn to host the Ravens in Music City in what should be another fantastic battle between two ground-centric offenses loaded with playmakers.
AFC Wild Card: Baltimore at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 10 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Titans' defense get off the field?
Tennessee features one of the worst defensive crews in recent playoff history. That's blunt, but it's true, and it could be this team's undoing. In their last five regular-season games, the Titans faced just one top-14 scoring offense (Green Bay), but still surrendered an average of 30.8 points and nearly 430 total yards of offense per contest. They've given up at least 400 yards eight times this season and at least 430 yards in four of their last five outings.
While marginal-at-best against the run, (120.8 ypg, 19th), the Tennessee D is arguably the least capable unit in the NFL at stopping opposing passing attacks. They rank 31st in touchdowns passes allowed (36), 30th in sacks (19), and 29th in yards (277.4 per game).
The Titans also are the worst team in the league when it comes to getting defensive stops. Offenses are converting on third down at a league-high 51.9 percent clip against Tennessee and scoring on 69.2 percent of their opportunities in the red zone, the third-highest mark in the league. Additionally, the Titans allow the second-most plays (6.6) and yards (38.2) per drive and have given up the most first downs (391). Put it all together and you've got a Tennessee defense that can't get off the field soon enough, or at times, ever.
Yet somehow, the Titans have stymied Baltimore's offense in their last two meetings. Thanks to four turnovers and six sacks, the Ravens have managed 36 total points in their last two meetings, including just 12 in last year's playoff duel despite gaining 536 yards. For the Titans to keep up with Ravens on Sunday, their defense will likely have to come up with more than just one takeaway.
2. Baltimore's offense flying high
The Ravens' offense is humming right now. During their five-game winning streak, Baltimore is averaging 37.2 points and 430.4 yards per game, capped off with 525 yards in Week 17 against Cincinnati. Last season the Ravens were the most dominant rushing offense in NFL history. This season, they are picking up right where they left off, even if some of the backfield pieces have changed. Baltimore leads the NFL in rushing attempts (382), yards (3,071), yards per carry (5.5), and is averaging an absurd 267 rushing yards per game during their recent streak.
The Ravens' offense only flies as high as Lamar Jackson takes them, and right now, he's playing lights out. In his last five games, Jackson has accounted for 15 total touchdowns (11 passing, four rushing), posted a 115.8 passer rating, and averaged 86 rushing yards. Jackson is the team's leading rusher (1,005 yards, 6.3 ypc) and is the first quarterback in league history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Jackson is looking to avenge his last two outings against the Titans. In the Week 11 loss against Tennessee, he had arguably the worst performance of his season, completing just 58 percent of his throws, a 74.8 rating, and managing just 3.9 yards per rushing attempt. And in last year's playoff meeting, Jackson threw for well over 300 yards, but he completed only 52 percent of his career-high 59 attempts. He also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.
3. What can Brown do for the Two-Tone Blue?
You know about the man they call the king here in Nashville – Derrick Henry. You know that he rushed for more than 2,000 yards this season and you're aware that he's the back-to-back NFL rushing champ. But for as amazing as Henry is, he isn't the only weapon the Ravens' defense needs to worry about slowing down on Sunday.
Wide receiver A.J. Brown, even at just six-feet tall, became one of the games' most physically imposing receivers in this his second professional season. Brown is Ryan Tannehill's favorite and most dangerous target. He leads the Titans in all major receiving categories: catches (70), yards (1,075), touchdowns (11), and yards per reception (15.4). Brown exploded last week against Houston for a season-high 10 catches, 151 yards, and a touchdown. It was his 52-yard catch with 18 seconds left that set up the game-winning, division-sealing field goal. Brown has been especially crucial for the Titans' offense on third down, where 17 of his 18 receptions in that situation have moved the chains.
This week, Brown's big-play presence will be even more vital for Tennessee. But will he be healthy enough to make an impact against Baltimore's' elite corners? Brown was limited in practice on Thursday with a lingering knee issue and he'll be facing three of the NFL's top defensive backs in Marcus Peters at left corner, Marlon Humphrey in the slot, and a recently healed-up Jimmy Smith back in the lineup as well. With Smith's size (6-2, 210), I wouldn't be surprised to see him line up against Brown more often than Peters or Humphrey, but all three provide their own challenge for any wideout.
This is going to be the most evenly matched game during "Super Wild Card Weekend." To me, it comes down to which defense can prevent the opposing offense from hitting the home-run play. Can the Ravens' eighth-ranked rushing defense keep Henry from breaking off big runs? They haven't yet. Can the Titans' defense keep Jackson from doing the same? They've done it before. Twice, actually. Is the third time the charm for Baltimore?
Prediction: Ravens 27, Titans 24