8:15 PM EST, NBC – Line: Bills -2.5, Over/Under: 50
After an entertaining Super Wild Card Weekend we march on towards the National Football League’s elite eight, as the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills meet in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs from Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. Whereas they entered last year’s Postseason as the AFC’s No. One Seed, the Ravens (11-5, 2nd in AFC North) are no longer the hunted, instead wearing the distinction of the hunter (the Fifth Seed), which quite frankly seems to suit them much better. A midseason swoon in which Baltimore lost four out of five contests threatened their standing within the hierarchy of the tightly-contested AFC, where an NFL-record SEVEN teams won eleven or more games in 2020. This was a period marred by injuries and arguably the most significant COVID-19 outbreak for any particular team, but fortunately for Jim Harbaugh’s charges, a return to full strength and health coupled with a much more inviting schedule would facilitate a return to form. Led by reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson (64.4%, 2,757 YDS, 6.41 NY/A, 26 TD, 9 INT, 73.9 QBR), they would finish the Regular Season on a five-game winning streak, which featured a back-to-basics approach on Offense; much was made of the struggles of the passing game during that midseason skid, and how the Coaching Staff were trying to turn Jackson into something he wasn’t, but it’s become clear that (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman decided to turn his Quarterback loose by doing what he does best, which is make plays with his legs. During this winning streak, the 23-year old has rushed for 430 yards and four touchdowns on a stellar 7.68 yards per carry, which pushed his season total (1,005) over 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season, becoming the first Quarterback in the history of the league to achieve that honor. Furthermore, the Offense as a whole really got rolling during this period, averaging a whopping 37.2 points per game on 430.4 total yards, including a ridiculous 267.4 yards on the ground on a very healthy 6.7 yards per carry. Of course, it becomes much easier to throw the football with success when you can run like that, and Jackson certainly took advantage of what he was given, tossing eleven touchdowns over the last five games in comparison to just three interceptions, all the while completing an efficient 67.0% of his passes. And it’s wth that said, that he would complete his third season in Charm City, a period in which he has amassed a record of 30-7 as the Starting Quarterback, which parlays to a win percentage of .810, the highest of any player through the first three years of his career. However, as is often the case with Quarterbacks, success in the Regular Season is one thing, but winning in the Playoffs is what truly matters, and in Jackson’s case his respective Postseason CV had been lacking; coming into last weekend’s showdown with the Titans (more on that shortly), he had struggled mightily in January, losing each of his first two affairs, completing just 51.1% of his attempts with three touchdowns and interceptions apiece, eleven sacks and a pair of lost fumbles. In the week leading up to these Playoffs, Jackson stated that the most important thing was to dispel this narrative that he couldn’t win in the Playoffs, and fortunately for all parties involved he would go on to do exactly that.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall since the Pittsburgh game.. I really think our guys have handled everything exceptionally well.”John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens Head Coach
When we last saw the Ravens, they marched into Nissan Stadium to face the Titans for the third time in a calendar year, looking to break their duck against the AFC South Champions. Of course, when they met in last season’s Divisional Round, it was Tennessee that stormed into M&T Bank Stadium and embarrassed Baltimore in a 28-12 thumping, eliminating the No. One Seed in shocking fashion. They would meet again on November 22nd, though the outcome would be the same, as Tennessee once again claimed victory as the visitors, rallying back from a 21-10 deficit to score twenty of the last twenty-three points en route to a 30-24 win. However, as it turned out the third time would indeed prove to be the charm for Harbaugh’s troops, who hit the road in this Wild Card matchup and found themselves trailing 10-0 early in the First Half. After a Justin Tucker Field Goal put them on the board, momentum changed once Jackson decided to take control of the affair, bouncing back from an early interception to rip off a 48-yard touchdown run to tie the game, the longest run by a Quarterback in Playoff history. The Ravens dominated from there on, relegating the hosts to only a field goal, as there Defense corralled NFL Rushing Champion, Derrick Henry, limiting him to just forty yards on eighteen carries, a stark contrast to the 328 yards he had racked up in the previous two encounters. In the end, this 20-13 victory wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate, as Baltimore held concrete advantages in a slew of categories, including total yards (401-209), first downs (22-12), rushing yards (236-51), and time of possession (33:38). For Jackson, who struggled so much in those two prior meetings it was an afternoon of vindication, as he overcame an early turnover and five sacks to complete 17-of-24 passes for a modest 179 yards, and rush for another 136 yards and a score on sixteen carries, while (Tailbacks) J.K. Dobbins (134 CAR, 805 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 9 TD) and Gus Edwards (144 CAR, 723 YDS, 5.0 Y/A, 6 TD) added forty-three and thirty-eight yards respectively, with the former breaching the End Zone early in the Third Quarter to take the lead. (Sophomore Receiver) Marquise Brown (58 REC, 769 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 8 TD) gave the passing game some sorely-needed explosion, reeling in seven receptions for 109 yards on nine targets, while rushing for another nineteen yards on two carries. In addition to keeping Henry in check, the Defense also made life miserable for Titans Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, who could manage just 165 yards on 18-of-26 passing with a touchdown and an interception courtesy of (Cornerback) Marcus Peters (52 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 4 FF, 1 FR, 4 INT, 9 PD), which effectively ended the game. The win was Baltimore’s first of the Postseason variety since 2014, and now it’s on to Buffalo, where Jackson will face off with his 2018 Draft classmate, Josh Allen; the two crossed paths in a 24-17 Ravens triumph at Orchard Park on December 8th, 2019, in which the eventual MVP threw three touchdowns and amassed a total of 185 yards.
Meanwhile, the theme of vindication continues with the Bills (13-3, 1st in AFC East), who have enjoyed a magical campaign that has seen them reach lofty heights that the franchise hasn’t seen in twenty-five years. Simply put, it’s awfully refreshing when a rebuilding project proceeds according to plan, and it’s with that said that everyone involved in Buffalo’s renaissance deserves a round of applause. (Head Coach) Sean McDermott and (General Manager) Brandon Beane have performed a remarkable job over the past three seasons, rebuilding the roster from scratch, particularly on the offensive side of the football where the team once ranked among the league’s worst. However, whether it be by trade, Free Agency, or the NFL Draft, McDermott and Beane have cultivated this unit into one of the most explosive in the league through a radical transformation instigated by (Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll and (third-year Quarterback) Josh Allen (69.2%, 4,544 YDS, 7.33 NY/A, 37 TD, 10 INT, 81.7 QBR). In his third season with the club, Daboll has worked wonders calling plays for a group that has gone from averaging 19.6 points per game (23rd Overall) on 345.7 total yards (24th Overall) to a stellar 31.3 points per contest (2nd Overall) on 406.8 total yards (2nd Overall). His work with Allen over this period of time has endeared himself across the NFL, with the development of his pupil into one of the best at his position making him one of the most sought-after head coaching candidates. It’s really been a seismic change for Allen who last season appeared to be behind the proverbial curve in terms of Quarterback development, completing just 58.8% of his attempts for an average of 193.1 yards on 5.72 net yards per attempt, with twenty touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a QBR of 49.4, which is nothing to get excited about. However, this season has seen the 24-year old improve exponentially across the board, posting career-highs in completion percentage (69.2%), passing yards (4,544), yards per attempt (7.9), net yards per attempt (7.33), touchdowns (37) touchdown percentage (6.5%), interception percentage (1.7%), sacks (26), sack percentage (4.3%), passer rating (107.2) and QBR (81.7), while continuing to make plays with his legs, rushing for 421 yards and another eight scores. The addition of (Receiver) Stefon Diggs (127 REC, 1,535 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 8 TD) has seen a major boost to this attack, with the 27-year old immediately building a strong rapport with his Quarterback that paid MAJOR dividends in 2020; one of the finest route-runners in the NFL, Diggs paced the league in both receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535) this season en route to the first Pro-Bowl nod of his career. While some pundits were quick to question the price that Buffalo paid for his services (2020 1st, 5th, and 6th Round Picks and a 2021 4th Round Pick), it’s really hard to fathom Allen’s meteoric rise taking place without him. However, fortune typically favors the bold in sports, and it’s with that said that the Bills were indeed rewarded for being bold, winning the AFC East for the first time since 1995.
“My first game, yeah. I’ve changed a lot since then. My mannerisms and my temper’s a little different than it was back in the day… I don’t forget those days. They’ve helped me get to where I am.”Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills Quarterback
When we last saw the Bills, they too exorcised their Postseason demons as they fended off a late rally from the Indianapolis Colts in a 27-24 victory, the first enjoyed by the franchise in twenty-five years. It was ironic that such a significant win came against one of their former heroes coaching on the opposite sideline, as Frank Reich, architect of the greatest Playoff comeback in NFL history led the Colts against his former club; back on January 3rd, 1993, Reich started for an injured Jim Kelly against the Houston Oilers in the Wild Card Playoffs, and steered his side back from a 35-3 deficit in the Third Quarter to earn an epic 41-38 victory in overtime. With that said, there would be no such rally for the Bills, for they wouldn’t need it. Things started slowly for Buffalo, who would punt on three of their first four drives, but they would eventually get going; McDermott’s troops would score on their next four possessions, running off seventeen unanswered points, punctuated by a 35-yard strike from Allen to Diggs to take a 24-10 lead early in the Fourth Quarter. Indianapolis would string together back-to-back 70+ yard drives to cut the deficit to three with just over six minutes left to play in the game, but would ultimately turn the football over on downs sealing their fate. In the end, the visitors certainly came to play, amassing twenty-seven first downs and 472 total yards, including 163 via the run, and held possession for 34:17, but couldn’t make the necessary plays to get over the hump, with a missed field goal and a pair of failed fourth downs looming large. For their troubles, the hosts made the most of the limited time that they had with the football, racking up 397 total yards in just 25:43. In his second career Postseason start, Allen completed 26-of-35 passes for 324 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while rushing for fifty-four more and another score, frequently linking up with Diggs, who logged 128 yards and a touchdown on six receptions. Fellow Receiver, Gabriel Davis (35 REC, 599 YDS, 17.1 Y/R, 7 TD), added four more catches for eighty-five yards, while Cole Beasley (82 REC, 967 YDS, 11.8 Y/R, 4 TD) checked in with fifty-seven yards on seven catches. Now with that monkey finally off his back, Allen will be looking to best the Ravens, whom he has struggled immensely with throughout his young career; Allen has faced them twice thus far, including last season’s aforementioned 24-17 defeat, in which was a disappointing 17-of-39 for only 146 yards and a touchdown, though he was sacked on six occasions and lost one of two fumbles. However, that wasn’t even the worst of it, for Baltimore also served as the author of his welcome to the NFL moment; Allen made the first start of his career against the Ravens back on September 9th, 2018, a 47-3 drubbing in which he could muster just seventy-four yards on 6-of-15 passing with three sacks. Needless to say, we have a feeling that he’ll be looking forward to a little payback tonight.