Titans-Ravens: AFC Divisional Round preview

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Viewers can watch the broadcast live on CBS at 8:15 p.m. ET, Jan. 11 as well as stream live on the NFL App and Yahoo Sports app.

The Backstory


The last time these two teams met, things were a lot different.

Marcus Mariota was still seen as potentially the guy in Nashville. Joe Flacco was still starting at quarterback for the Ravens. And Mariota found himself staring closely at the Nissan Stadium turf nearly a dozen times after frequently running himself into trouble as the Ravens recorded a franchise-record 11 sacks in a 21-0 win.

Plenty has changed. Lamar Jackson and Ryan Tannehill are now the two teams' starting quarterbacks, and they're also Nos. 1 and 2 in passer rating in the NFL since Week 7. Each owns a completion percentage over 66, a passer rating of at least 113.3 and TD-INT ratios of nearly 4:1.

That makes for a high-flying postseason affair, right? Wrong. Among all playoff quarterbacks, Jackson and Tannehill average the fewest passing yards per game, with Tannehill's 216.5 ranking slightly above Jackson's 208.5. There's also an element of inexperience for each of the quarterbacks, who have a combined 1-1 playoff record. Oh, and neither are making much money in comparison to their league-wide counterparts, with the two's combined salary cap hit of $4.38 million ranking as the lowest between two starting quarterbacks in a Divisional Round game since 2010 (per Over The Cap).

So this game will come down to the quarterbacks, or maybe it won't. That's because each side boasts a fantastic rushing attack, with one coming from multiple contributors, and the other carried by one hulking pair of shoulders. History is on the side of Tennessee's Derrick Henry, as each of the three prior postseason meetings between a team with the NFL's leader rusher and the league's best rushing offense have all been won by the former.

Again, though, things are different in 2019, and we haven't even gotten into the two teams' defenses. Who will come away victorious?

Under Pressure


Titans' defense

Am I joking? No, I'm not, but I am conveniently turning off my Twitter notifications until the conclusion of this game.

Jackson is the runaway favorite to win the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award, and for good reason. The second-year signal-caller set the single-season rushing record for quarterbacks (1,206 yards) and also led the NFL in passing touchdowns (36). He can clearly beat you with his arm or his legs. But he's battling a 20-year run in which a team with the MVP has failed to win the greatest prize of all.

The last player to win MVP and the Super Bowl in the same season was Kurt Warner in 1999, leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl XXXIV triumph in the Georgia Dome.

The team they beat? The Tennessee Titans.

The pressure is on Tennessee because it has to find a way to stop -- no, contain -- Jackson, as well as the rest of the Ravens' offense. Consider these statistics compiled by the excellent NFL Research team:

The Ravens ...

-- Converted first down on 31.5 percent of rush attempts (highest rate since 1940)
-- Had nine games with 200-plus rushing yards (most in a season since 1978 Patriots, who had 11)

The Titans might have an ace up their sleeve in this one, as they have been much stronger when they pair problem-causer Jurrell Casey with rookie standout Jeffrey Simmons. According to Next Gen Stats, Tennessee is stuffing runs at nearly double its usual rate (30.1 versus 17.6) with Casey and Simmons on the field and is allowing just 3.0 yards per carry when they're paired up. The duo helped stuff New England on a crucial second-quarter possession on the goal line, forcing the Patriots to settle for three in what was a one-possession finish.

They'll need stops like that again this weekend. This is the 10th matchup of a No. 1 seed with the No. 1 scoring offense versus the No. 6 seed in the Divisional Round since 1990. No. 1 seeds are 8-1; only New England lost to the New York Jets in 2010.

That makes for a tough going for Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who will meet a familiar foe this weekend in Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The two have met twice previously, in Super Bowl XLVII and in Week 1 of the 2016 season.

Pees was once in charge of an excellent Ravens defense back in 2013, but it didn't show up in New Orleans on the sport's grandest stage, allowing 7.8 yards per play to Roman's 49ers offense, which featured Colin Kaepernick, who racked up 364 total yards and scored two touchdowns. That point was ultimately moot, as the Ravens found a way to complete a goal-line stand and defeat the 49ers.

This should promise to be a close one. In Roman's and Pees' two previous meetings, the games were decided by one possession. Get ready for a chess match.

Ravens linebackers

We're choosing the second level of Baltimore's unheralded but very effective defense because its members will be most responsible for cutting down the NFL rushing champion in Henry. We highlighted how such matchups have gone for opposing offenses, but what about the offense-versus-defense matchup -- you know, the one that actually matters?

If numbers never lie, Henry's in for a solid day. Baltimore allowed 93.4 rushing yards per game this season, good for fifth in the NFL, but Henry hasn't been fazed by such competition. The running back faced a top-10 rush defense six times in 2019, including playoffs, and recorded 75-plus rushing yards and one or more rushing touchdowns in five of those six contests. He averaged 21.5 rushes, 111.5 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and one touchdown per game in those games, too, meaning he won't back down just because the opposing stats tell him things might be tough.

The onus will be on Baltimore linebackers Patrick Onwuasor, Josh Bynes, Matt Judon and L.J. Fort to limit Henry as much as possible. New England couldn't do it, watching Tannehill hand off to Henry 33 times and grind down their defense, nearly helpless in a home defeat. Can Baltimore prevent itself from realizing a similar fate?

Matchup to Watch


Mark Andrews vs. Titans linebackers and Nickel package

We could choose a number of matchups in this game, but I'm leaning toward Andrews because of how important he's been to Jackson's success.

Andrews leads all Ravens pass-catchers in 2019 with 64 receptions for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns (most among tight ends). Baltimore's deep stable of tight ends caught 125 passes for 1,522 yards, second best in both categories in the NFL.

This leaves the Titans on the tracks with a Ravens train of tight ends barreling toward them. Tennessee allowed nine receiving touchdowns to tight ends in 2019, third most in the NFL behind the Cardinals and Browns.

A major reason for why these tight ends are finding success in the Charm City is because of Baltimore's rushing attack, which can slice an opponent up via Mark Ingram (though his game status is a question mark), Gus Edwards or Justice Hill handoffs, or Jackson keepers. All defenses must first respect Baltimore's rushing attack before worrying about the pass, leaving them susceptible to play-action passes, which often target Andrews, Nick Boyle or Hayden Hurst. Add these tight ends near the top of the list of worries for the Titans and Pees, who will have to prepare accordingly if he wants to earn a revenge win over his former team.

Prediction


Baltimore's multi-faceted offensive attack makes for the first multi-possession difference in a Roman-Pees showdown. A two-headed attack of Tannehill and Henry tries mightily to keep up, but ultimately falls short to the AFC's top team.

Baltimore Ravens 27, Tennessee Titans 17

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