After missing out on the Ezekiel Ansah sweepstakes last week, the Ravens decided to bring back an old friend to help bolster their pass rush in 2019. Dust off those #90 jerseys because Pernell McPhee will be back in Baltimore this season on a one-year deal.
It’s the most exciting time of the year for football fans and the Charm City Bird Watch crew is back again for another year of playoff predictions. As each round of the playoffs progresses our staff will be breaking down every matchup and giving you a prediction as to who we think will win.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6) @ Houston Texans (11-5) – Sat 4:35 pm – ABC / ESPN
Nolan: This will be the first of hopefully many great playoff games in 2018. After watching the Bills and Titans stink it up in the AFC bracket last year, I think we are all ready for a better slate of games. The Colts and Texans will square off for the third time this season. Both of their previous meetings was decided by three points and I’m expecting another close game for round three. Both teams also put together impressive win streaks this season, proving they are both capable of a postseason run. I’m picking the Texans at home because of their defense. We all know about their leader J.J. Watt but the defense as a whole doesn’t get much national attention despite being right up there with the Ravens and Bears. They are top three in stopping the run and one of five teams holding their opponents to under 20 points-per-game.
Score: Texans 26 Colts 21
Ian: This will be Deshaun Watson’s first career NFL playoff game but he has performed well on the biggest stage of college football multiple times and I expect him to remain poised in this one and lead his team to victory. The Colts haven’t been to the playoffs since 2014 but Andrew Luck has returned and is playing at an MVP level. The Texans have the home field advantage here and the two teams have played two games this season each decided by three points. I think the Texans have a few more playmakers overall than the Colts and ultimately that will be enough to send Houston through to the next round.
Score: Texans 27 Colts 23
Jay: This is a Houston team who many had written off early after starting the season 0-3. They would end up going on a brilliant winning streak that helped them win the AFC South title. On the other hand, the Colts started the season 1-5 before turning things around to squeak into the playoffs with a late season win against another division foe, the Tennessee Titans. Both teams have talented quarterbacks, but the play of Andrew Luck has been absolutely lights out. Deshaun Watson comes into this game battered and bruised after being sacked a league high 62 times this season. The Colts have accounted for 12 of those between their two previous meetings this year. The lack of protection for Watson will be the difference in this game. I see pressure forcing Watson to make some ill-timed mistakes.
Score: Colts 24 Texans 20
Jake: Think the Ravens will have their hands full putting a gameplan together to face the same team twice in three weeks? Think about how the Colts and Texans feel, facing each other for the third time this season as AFC South foes. With that said, I think this game is relatively low-scoring. The Texans can run the ball with Lamar Miller, but DeShaun Watson lacks the repertoire of weapons that he had before Demaryius Thomas went down with a torn Achilles. Couple that with Watson being sacked more than anyone in the NFL this season (62 times), and Houston has a problem. The Colts offensive line went from being one of the worst in the NFL to being one of the best, ranking third in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. However, one-third of the 18 sacks given up by the Colts this season came at the hands of the Texans. All of these factors will likely lead to a low-scoring affair, but I think Andrew Luck finds a way in the end and wins his second game in Houston in five weeks.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6) @ Dallas Cowboys (10-6) – Sat 8:15 pm – FOX
Nolan: As a Ravens fan I should probably appreciate what the Seahawks are doing right now but I’m not super confident in them as a road team. They have some nice wins under their belt this season, including a 24-13 win over Dallas in week three. However, all of those impressive wins came at home. The Seahawks have had a handful of chances to pick up good road wins but they will finish the season with a 4-4 record away from CenturyLink Field. Their best performance on the road was a 30-27 win over Carolina but they also lost to inferior teams in San Francisco and Denver. The Cowboys have been prone to early playoff exits under Jason Garrett but I see them rising to the occasion this week at home.
Score: Cowboys 28 Seahawks 19
These two matchups alone are enough for me to lean toward Seattle in this one. Seattle has a decided advantage in both of these matchups. It is impossible for me to trust Dallas in the playoffs especially against two guys that have had the playoff success that Carroll and Wilson have had in Seattle. A revamped running game that ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards per game and a healthier Doug Baldwin will be the difference in what will be the next Cowboys playoff flop.
Score: Seahawks 23 Cowboys 19
Jay: Rumors are Jerry Jones has said he wants playoff success from Jason Garrett before he makes a decision on whether or not he will retain his head coaching title. Rightfully so as America’s teams has only mustered two playoff wins since 1996. Maybe these Cowboys are different. This Cowboys team runs the football extremely well with Ezekiel Elliott. They also boast one of the best defenses in the league led by rookie sensation Leighton Vander Esch. But they are matching up against a perennial playoff challenger in the Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson can beat you in every way as his arm and leg combination makes him the prototype dual threat quarterback. The Seahawks have a similar mentality of the Cowboys they want to run the football and play good defense. Except this Seahawks offense is scary running the football. They have a league-high 2,560 yards on the ground this year with a staggering 160 yards-per-game. The Seahawks also protect the ball very well with the league’s best turnover differential (+15). I believe that will be the difference in Saturday’s game. A late game mistake by the young Dallas offensive cast sets up Wilson and company to win the game.
Score: Seahawks 20 Cowboys 17
Jake: I know the Seahawks went 4-4 on the road this season, but my pick comes down to not being able to trust the Cowboys. Since the new millennium, the Cowboys have played to a 2-6 record in the postseason. Two years ago the Cowboys won the NFC East and owned the top overall seed in the playoffs only to lose to the Packers at home in the divisional round. There’s some franchises that choke in crunch time, and the Cowboys are certainly one of them. I have much more faith in Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, who have made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons with at least one win in each trip. Pete Carroll is a playoff wizard and I think Wilson & Carroll lead Seattle to another playoff win over Jason Garrett and the Cowboys.
Score: Seahawks 27 Cowboys 21
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) @ Baltimore Ravens (10-6) – Sun 1:05 pm – CBS
Nolan: Playing the same team twice in the span of three weeks is less than ideal but that is the scenario this week for the Ravens and Chargers. The odds were stacked against Baltimore as a road team a few weeks ago but this time they will get to host the Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium. The tape is out on Lamar Jackson and Los Angeles will be the first team to face him twice. When you combine that with the fact that the Chargers are 7-1 on the road this year, there is a lot of reason to be concerned as a Ravens fan. However, I trust Baltimore to get the job done at home. The pass rush flustered Philip Rivers last time and helped generate turnovers. If Jackson and the offense can actually capitalize off of them by finishing some drives, the Ravens will win this game.
Score: Ravens 24 Chargers 23
Jay: The Lamar Jackson effect is contagious in Baltimore. After taking over for the former super bowl MVP Joe Flacco, Jackson and company have done nothing but win. The revitalized offense has been churning on the ground by averaging 229.5 yards-per-game through the last seven games. This team was 4-5 at the bye with an injured starting quarterback. Most thought this season was lost (myself included). With the No. 1 defense smothering opponents and the electrifying play of Jackson, this team has won six of seven and brought home the AFC North title at 10-6. The Chargers have quietly been one of the best teams in football this season. After moving from San Diego to Los Angeles, the Chargers have essentially played 16 away games but still find themselves in the postseason with a 12-4 record. Phillip Rivers has been the driving factor for the Chargers success this season. In the first matchup between the Chargers and Ravens, Rivers played terrible and was running for his life most of the evening. Rivers has all the weapons around him to be successful, but none of the matters if the offensive line can’t slow down this tenacious Ravens pass rush. If the Chargers figure out how to slow down the pass rush it could turn into a long day for the Ravens but I would look for Don Martindale to have some crafty schemes drawn up to stay in Rivers face all day.
Score: Ravens 28 Chargers 24
Jake: Lamar Jackson will make his first start in an NFL playoff game against Philip Rivers, who owns a 4-5 postseason record with a Chargers team making their first postseason appearance since 2013. The question on everyone’s mind is how will both teams change their gameplan just two weeks after facing each other in Carson, California? It’s going to be hard for the Ravens defense to limit Rivers and the Chargers’ offense to 181 total yards like they did in that week 16 affair. When I couple that along with the Ravens recent redzone and second half struggles on offense, I’m finding it hard to pick the Ravens in. I picked the Chargers two weeks ago and I was wrong, so hopefully history repeats itself. I’m guessing that the Chargers look tired from playing at 1:00 after travelling from the west coast, but I think arguably the best roster in the AFC finds their way on Sunday.
Score: Chargers 21 Ravens 20
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) @ Chicago Bears (12-4) – Sun 4:40 pm – NBC
Nolan: Last year I picked against the Eagles in every playoff game all the way through the Super Bowl and was wrong every time. I should have probably learned my lesson by now, especially with Nick Foles back under center, but that’s not the case. The Bears will present a big challenge for the Eagles with their stout defense. Philly has played in 12 games this season decided by seven points or less and they came out on top in six of them. If the game comes down to one key possession in the fourth quarter, they have a good shot but I am expecting the Bears to be up by more than one possession late in the game.
Score: Bears 28 Eagles 17
Ian: The Bears are led by first year head coach Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The defending champs counter with Doug Pedersen and super bowl MVP Nick Foles, who is looking to take the Eagles on another magical run. The Bears boast one of the league’s top defenses and they figure to make life difficult for Foles and company this Sunday night in Chicago but the Eagles have all of the experience needed to emerge victorious here. The Eagles stop the run effectively and Trubisky isn’t good enough to carry the offense in Chi-Town. Couple that with the Eagles offense finding their way the last few weeks, and this one has the makings for a long day for the Bears. Give me the Eagles here.
Score: Eagles 26 Bears 14
Jay: Philadelphia’s lord and savior Nick Foles will roll into the windy city this Sunday to match up against the monsters of the midway, led by Khalil Mack. The reigning super bowl champions have not had the season they had hoped for as they lost their starting quarterback Carson Wentz once again. However, the Philadelphia natives had no fear as Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles came off the bench to secure three must-win games and send the Eagles back to the postseason. Can Foles and the Eagles repeat what they did last year? Can a backup quarterback lead them to the Super Bowl again? On the other hand, the Chicago Bears have been an absolute terror for opposing offenses. They have the league’s top scoring defense, allowing just under 18 points a game. Khalil Mack leads a tenacious pass rush which has wreaked havoc across the league this season. If Mitchell Trubisky can find the steady consistency that he has found for much of the season, the Bears should win this game handily. The front seven of the Bears are the X-factor in this game. Can they contain Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles catching the ball out of the backfield? Foles is nursing some injured ribs which I’m sure will be very tender. Mack and company should have a field day.
Score: Bears 23 Eagles 16
Jake: Just like Nolan, I picked against the Eagles all throughout the playoffs last year, with the exception being the Super Bowl. I learned my lesson and I’m rolling with the Eagles this time. I can’t explain it, but there’s something about Nick Foles in big games that I can’t go against. I certainly understand why the Bears are the favorites at home, especially since the Eagles have a hard time running the football and defending the pass. Not to mention that the Bears defense is flat-out scary and can completely take over a game. While Matt Nagy could very well be named the NFL Coach of the Year soon, I have more faith in the defending Super Bowl champions to pull off the upset on the road simply because they’ve been here before. Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears have a bright future ahead of them, but I think Trubisky makes one or two late-game mistakes that end up being all the Eagles need to move on to the divisional round.
Score: Eagles 24, Bears 20
As the Ravens prepare to get their 2018 campaign underway, fans are wondering what the team will do this year. When you combine the pressure to rebound from missing the playoffs three years in a row with a tough schedule, you have a scenario with little room for error.
For many the defense is a sign of strength as the season approaches. After retaining almost everyone from last year’s squad and adding some intriguing draft picks, this feeling is justified but as much as I want to, I can’t subscribe to this mentality. The Ravens defense was far too inconsistent in 2017 and it’s going to take some convincing before I put my trust in them again this year.
In the 2017 offseason, the Ravens retooled their defense in free agency and the draft. By bringing in the likes of Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson, the front office seemed determined to fix the depth issues that plagued the secondary in previous seasons. When the draft rolled around it became evident that they were going to neglect the offense, but it didn’t matter because the defense was about to return to the days of old when the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the field and struck fear into the hearts of every opposing team.
This excitement was only natural and honestly there was nothing wrong with it. On paper the defense had an exceptional amount of depth, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary. However, the second that excitement turned into expectations, we were only setting ourselves up for disappointment.
The brand new Ravens defense dominated in the 2017 preseason, which only raised those expectations to extreme heights. When I say dominate, I mean it. During that four-game preseason campaign, the Ravens defense held their opponents to just 7.5 points and 206 yards-per-game while also forcing six turnovers.
Even the local media started to get on the hype train. A countless amount of outlets couldn’t resist the urge to compare the 2017 defense’s potential to the historic defensive units in team history. At the time I thought it was stupid but when the regular season kicked off in Cincinnati, the defense looked nothing short of historic. They forced five turnovers, including four interceptions by Andy Dalton, a quarterback who often picked apart the Ravens in previous seasons. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Ravens had successfully held their division foe to zero points.
A debut like this only strengthened the argument that the 2017 defense was the real deal. Throughout the rest of the season, the Ravens defense came up with two more shutouts and led the league in turnovers. These are just two of the biggest accomplishments for last year’s defense but the Ravens still finished the season with a 9-7 record and missed out on the playoffs for the third straight year.
How could this be? How could a team with such a dominant defense finish 9-7? Ask the average Ravens fan and they will tell you the offense was to blame. Well, I’m here to tell you that the defense is just as responsible, if not more, for the way the 2017 season played out.
Lets start by acknowledging the offense’s flaws. I previously mentioned the lack of attention given to the offense during the 2017 offseason and early on that looked like a serious detriment to the team. Throw in Joe Flacco’s back injury and some unbelievably predictable play-calling by Marty Mornhinweg, and things weren’t looking too hot. However, if you erase all touchdowns scored by the defense and special teams, the Ravens offense still managed to put up at least 20 points in 12 of their 16 games. Those other four games all ended up being loses, with the offense averaging just 10.5 points in them.
It’s performances like these that make Flacco and company an easy target for blame. However, in those four loses the Ravens defense allowed 28.5 points per game, making only one (week six against Chicago) actually winnable in crunch time. A pair of special teams touchdowns helped the Ravens keep the game alive, but in overtime it was the defense that choked by allowing Mitch Trubisky and Jordan Howard to walk 71 yards down the field with ease for a game-winning field goal.
This leads me to one of my biggest gripes with the 2017 defense, and that is the level of competition they faced. After a mass wave of season-ending injuries plagued the NFL, the Ravens defense ended up facing five offenses led by a rookie or backup quarterback. Their 4-1 record in those games is not a surprise considering they avoided quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Derek Carr. I can’t tell you what the record would be if they faced healthier teams but I would be willing to bet that two of their three shutouts (Green Bay & Miami) wouldn’t have happened if that was the case.
Unfortunately that previously mentioned loss against Chicago was not an isolated incident. Even the best defenses in the league are prone to being exposed every once in a while but that was not the case for the Ravens last year.
After the bye week the offense started to turn the corner. Flacco had more chemistry with his receivers and Alex Collins emerged as a legitimate threat in the backfield. Outside of a Sunday night matchup with the Steelers, the Ravens second half schedule was softer than a pillow. A playoff berth was still very much in sight and as long as the defense maintained their high level of play down the stretch, the Ravens would surely be back in the mix come January.
As we know now, that didn’t happen. The Ravens went 5-2 in their last seven games after the bye week. That doesn’t sound bad as an isolated stat, but the fact that the two losses could be boiled down to one play makes things way worse. In Pittsburgh the defense only needed to make one stop at any point in the fourth quarter and the Ravens would have had the edge in the offensive shootout. Fast forward to week 17 and the defense failed, once again, to make the one stop necessary with the game on the line.
As we prepare to enter the 2018 season, I look at the defense and I see a depth chart that pretty much mirrors what we saw last year. So I ask you, can the 2018 Ravens defense be trusted? Don’t get me wrong, I want nothing but success for this team and if they stay healthy I think they have an opportunity to really grow as a unit.
Health is just one of many variables standing in their way. Even if the defense keeps its big play-makers on the field, the pressure to succeed is being placed on the shoulders of new defensive coordinator Don Martindale. I compiled a lot of issues in the paragraphs above, but how many of them could have been avoided without Dean Pees calling plays? A lot of people seem to think most of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that Martindale is still rather unproven as a defensive coordinator.
Need more variables? How about Jimmy Smith? The Ravens top tier cornerback will be absent for the first four weeks of the season as he serves a suspension. When it comes to Smith’s impact, the numbers pretty much speak for themselves. With Smith on the field the last two seasons, opposing quarterbacks averaged a passer raring of 76.1. When Smith was out, that average rating increased to 91.5. To make things worse, two of the Ravens’ first four games will be road tests against the Bengals and Steelers.
Guess who wasn’t on the field when the Ravens faced Pittsburgh and Cincinnati down the stretch last season? There is no way to dispute it. Smith’s presence could have easily been the difference between a win and loss in those two games.
As always the numbers make a more compelling argument. When Smith faced off against Cincinnati’s A.J Green and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in the first half of 2017, he allowed just two receptions and 27 yards. After being sidelined with a season-ending injury, Green and Brown brought in 13 receptions and racked up 230 yards while running wild against the rest of the Ravens secondary.
My final variable is the health and depth of the defense. At the end of the day health is a something that you don’t always have control over and that’s scary. We saw the difference in results when Smith went down, but what if another cornerstone of this defense, like Brandon Williams or Terrell Suggs, misses time? The absence of either of these players would handicap the pass rush and run defense significantly.
We don’t have to speculate because the Ravens defense has already taken a hit with a couple preseason injuries. DeShon Elliott and Stanley Jean-Baptiste were not primed to be starters but their season-ending injuries have an impact on the team’s depth which could become a bigger problem as the season progresses.
The worst defensive injury of the preseason wasn’t even a season-ending one. Rookie linebacker Kenny Young came on strong this preseason and challenged Patrick Onwuasor for the second starting middle linebacker position. Even if he didn’t get the starting role, he would have likely seen significant playing time but now there are questions surrounding his knee. The team’s depth at middle linebacker is pretty thin with or without Young, which has me concerned moving forward.
Just like last year, there is a ton of potential to be found when looking at the Ravens defense. Who knows, the offense is certainly looking more capable going into this season so the need for a lockdown defense may not be as necessary as last year. I just worry that between the variables listed above and a tough schedule, the defense will be put under extreme pressure this year.
Image credit: Patrick Semansky / AP