Ravens, Bills collide for a matchup between top AFC contenders
Playoff implications are on the line Sunday, as the Buffalo Bills host the Baltimore Ravens for a highly anticipated Week 14 clash between two of the hottest teams in the AFC. The red-hot Ravens enter Sunday's matchup riding high on a franchise-record eight-game winning streak following last week's hard-fought 20-17 victory over San Francisco. While the Ravens' impressive streak of blowout wins over top-tier opponents came to an end in the rain-soaked affair against the 49ers, they were able to improve their record to 6-1 on the season against teams with a winning record. Now 10-2 overall, the Ravens control their own destiny as the top seed in the AFC, with an opportunity to clinch a spot in the playoffs with a win over the Bills on Sunday. A win, coupled with a Steelers' loss, would guarantee John Harbaugh’s Ravens their second straight AFC North title.
Meanwhile, Sean McDermott's Bills are riding a nice wave of momentum of their own after knocking off the Cowboys on the road in front of a national audience on Thanksgiving Day. The impressive 26-15 victory over Dallas marked the third win in a row for the 9-3 Bills, who have now climbed to within one game of the Patriots for the lead in the AFC East. As it stands, Buffalo is the No. 5 seed in the AFC, with a two-game lead over the Steelers for the top wild-card spot. A win over the Ravens on Sunday would all but guarantee the Bills their second postseason appearance in three seasons.
Baltimore at Buffalo
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 8 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Bills contain Lamar Jackson?
Love him or hate him, you must agree that Jackson makes for must-see TV. You also would be hard-pressed to find a more qualified candidate for NFL MVP honors than the dynamic second-year quarterback. He enters Week 14 with 977 rushing yards, needing just 23 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark and 62 to break Michael Vick's single-season rushing record for a quarterback. He's also averaging an NFL-best 7.0 yards per carry. But it may be Jackson's passing ability that has taken the biggest leap. He leads the league with a quarterback rating of 81.6, and his 25 touchdown passes trail only Russell Wilson's 26.
So, how does the Bills' defense stack up against Jackson? On paper, not bad. The Buffalo pass defense ranks among the best in the league, allowing the third-fewest passing yards per game (195.8) and the second-fewest touchdown passes (9). This unit features lockdown cornerback Tre'Davious White along with two of the more athletic linebackers in the NFL in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. If Edmunds and Milano and the rest of the Bills' pass rush are successful in keeping Jackson in the pocket that could be a factor in limiting the damage he does. Buffalo has recorded 15 sacks and 29 QB hits over the last three games alone.
But some of the best defenses in the NFL have tried and failed miserably in their attempt to contain the elusive dual-threat quarterback. So while Buffalo may seem to match up reasonably well against Jackson on paper, going out and actually getting the job done on the field is something entirely different.
2. The emergence of Josh Allen
Following a tough rookie campaign, things weren't exactly looking up for Allen in the early stages of this season either. Through the first four games, he threw just three touchdown passes against six interceptions. But something seemed to click for the big-armed quarterback in Week 5. And with the help of some standout performances from wide receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown, Allen has taken his game to a new level. In his last eight games, he has completed an impressive 62 percent of his attempts for 1,688 yards, 13 touchdown passes, and just two interceptions — culminating in a career-best 120.7 passer rating last week against the Cowboys.
He continues to be quite proficient with his legs as well. Allen isn't nearly as electric in the run game as Jackson, but his 430 rushing yards rank third among his peers. And no one, not even Jackson, has more rushing touchdowns than Allen's eight. He's also has thrown for more yards than Jackson entering Sunday's game. The question is can Allen keep things rolling against an opportunistic Ravens defense?
3. The run game looms large
The only way to keep Jackson and the Ravens' high-powered offense from inflicting serious damage is to keep them off the field. The only way to do that is to keep the chains moving and the clock rolling with a successful run game. While that is easier said than done against a Baltimore defense that ranks sixth in the NFL against the run (94.9 ypg), it may not be as daunting as you would think for a Buffalo team that is fifth in the league in rushing offense (137.9 ypg).
The Ravens are giving up 4.5 yards per carry so some of their statistical success against the run is due to the fact that teams don't get many opportunities to possess the ball or are forced to throw because of the points put up by Jackson and company. Furthermore, Baltimore has struggled against teams that excel in running the football on the edges, allowing 5.8 yards per carry on runs outside the tackles — second-highest average in the NFL. This weakness showed up last week as San Francisco's Raheem Mostert went for a career-high 146 rushing yards against the Ravens. The Bills will rely on speedster Devin Singletary to try and exploit that weakness again on Sunday.
Baltimore's defensive soft spot aside, the real challenge when it comes to the running game is how Buffalo fares against one of the most productive rushing attacks in the history of professional football. The Ravens are averaging a league-best 208 rushing yards per game with 18 touchdowns. If they continue at this pace, this team will shatter the single-season record for rushing yards by a team. Besides Jackson, Baltimore gets steady production from Mark Ingram (837 rushing yds., 9 TDs) and Gus Edwards (460, 2) out of their backfield. As a team, the Ravens are averaging 5.6 yards per carry. The next-highest mark in the NFL belongs to Carolina (4.8 ypc). The Bills have improved in their run-stopping efforts in recent weeks but that hasn't included facing the league's No. 1 ground attack. Until now.
The Bills have plenty of momentum and match up relatively well against the Ravens in several regards. They will benefit from one of the better home-field advantages in the NFL on Sunday. And Buffalo should glean an edge from having nine days to rest up and prepare for this game. However, this is a Bills team that has benefited greatly from a very soft schedule to this point. In fact, only one of Buffalo's nine wins has come against a team that currently has a winning record. That leads me to believe that there may be a little bit of fool's gold here.
Conversely, the Ravens boast a 6-1 mark against teams that currently have a winning record. Not only have they beaten many of the top teams in the NFL, they have done so in dominant fashion (more often than not). There's also nothing pretentious about a team riding an eight-game winning streak that boasts the top-scoring offense in the league and the MVP front-runner. And lest we not forget, there's a defense that hasn't allowed more than 20 points in a game since Week 5. The Bills may be able to keep it relatively competitive under the circumstances, but the visiting Ravens are simply on another level right now.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Bills 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.