If we've learned anything about the NFL this season, it's to expect the unexpected. That's why, despite the odds being stacked against them, no one should be surprised if the Ravens dethrone the Bengals in Sunday night's wild card playoff game.
Despite Lamar Jackson's injury, the Ravens made the playoffs for the 10th time under John Harbaugh. Despite injuries to several key players, Baltimore managed to win 10 games while displaying the toughness and fortitude that has become its trademark.
The Ravens' first-round opponent is a team they are extremely familiar with. In fact, the two teams played this past Sunday, when the Ravens lost a closer-than-expected game given the fact that Harbaugh sat six of his starters. Baltimore split its season series with Cincinnati, which is hoping to have a successful defense of its AFC title.
The Ravens, however, are looking to end the Bengals' title defense before it can truly begin. Let's take a look at the three reasons why Baltimore will pull off the upset on Sunday night.
Baltimore knows how to contain Burrow
Like a boxer on the ropes, the Ravens were the victims of vicious Joe Burrow body blows in 2021. Burrow, egged on by then-Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale's lack of praising comments of him, lit up Baltimore to the tune of 941 yards and seven touchdowns as the Bengals swept their division rival.
Burrow, however, was far less effective in Cincinnati's two games against Baltimore this season. He threw for just 432 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in those games. For only the second time this season, Burrow completed fewer than 60% of his throws in this past Sunday's win over Baltimore.
Burrow was admittedly off on Sunday, but the Ravens deserve some of the credit for his underwhelming performance. The Ravens, after all, boasted the NFL's third-ranked scoring defense during the regular season. While they were just 26th in the league in passing yards allowed, Baltimore's defense was fourth in the league in third-down efficiency and third in red zone efficiency.
A good portion of the Ravens' defensive success can be attributed to the midseason acquisition of linebacker Roquan Smith, who is just days removed from being rewarded with a lucrative extension. Smith would certainly love nothing man then to celebrate his new deal than with a big performance in Cincinnati. Baltimore's defense, however, is anything but a one-man show. The unit also features fellow Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey, ball-hawking safety Marcus Williams, linebackers Patrick Queen, Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul, and veteran defensive end Calais Campbell.
They may not be the 2000 unit, but the Ravens' current defense is talented enough to go on a similar playoff run that includes a shutdown of Burrow and the Bengals' explosive offense.
Let's not sugarcoat the impact of Jackson's likely absence for Sunday's game. Jackson is arguably the best running quarterback in league history. He is also a highly efficient passer who will surely get his big pay day this offseason. But even without Jackson, the Ravens offense has the talent to beat Cincinnati.
It all starts with the running game, which finished the regular season with 2,270 yards and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. J.K. Dobbins, the Ravens' best back, is fresh and ready to roll after sitting out last week's season finale. Dobbins ran for more yards than any other running back during Weeks 14-17. During that span, the former Ohio State standout ran for 397 yards that included 120 yards in a win over Pittsburgh and 125 yards against Cleveland.
Dobbins last faced the Bengals in Week 16 of the 2020 season. A rookie at the time, Dobbins rolled to the tune of 160 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-point Ravens win. While Cincinnati's run defense is much tougher these days, the unit did allow 110 yards on the ground last Sunday despite Dobbins' absence.
Dobbins is the focal point, but the Ravens offense has other weapons. Baltimore's offense boasts one of the NFL's best tight ends in Mark Andrews, who was recently selected to his third Pro Bowl. Andrews has been complemented this season by rookie tight end Isaiah Likely, who set career highs with eight catches for 103 yards in last Sunday's game.
Baltimore's receiving corps has taken a beating, but the unit still has two battle-tested wideouts in Demarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins. The duo helped the Chiefs in the Super Bowl three years ago, and both players are still capable of making big plays in key moments.
Does anything else need to be said? Like Mariano Rivera was for the Yankees, Justin Tucker is a cheat code for Baltimore, especially in close games.
Arguably the best kicker in NFL history, Tucker was as good as ever during his 11th regular season. The five-time All Pro led the NFL in field goals made and attempted this season. He made nine field goals of over 50 yards with a season-high 58-yard field goal. He's just a year removed from drilling an NFL record 66-yard field goal.
Tucker played a big role in Baltimore's win over Cincinnati earlier this season. He made four field goals in that game that included a game-winning, 43-yarder as time expired.
Sunday night's game pits two of the NFL's top kickers against one another. Tucker's counterpart on Sunday, Evan McPherson, made a slew of clutch field goals during the Bengals' Super Bowl run last season. While often overlooked, the kicking game may loom large in the outcome of Sunday's game. With that in mind, the Ravens still hold an advantage with Tucker, who could further add to his likely Hall of Fame resume with another game-winning kick in the postseason.