Joe Flacco had a poor finish to the regular season vs. Cincinnati after making substantial improvement from a four-interception disaster vs. the Bengals in Week 2. The Chiefs no doubt have taken a close look at what the Bengals' defense does to force Flacco to hesitate on many of his throws and lose his poise when being pressured. The Chiefs can put plenty of heat on him.
They tend to be more successful when Ray Rice is a major part of the game plan, as evidenced by their 5-1 record when he has 20-plus carries. Rice's role has grown late in the season, as he rushed for 153 and 92 yards in consecutive December victories vs. New Orleans and Cleveland. The Chiefs are capable of making it difficult for the Ravens to run.
The acquisitions of Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth were meant to bolster the passing game, but it hasn't quite worked out. Opponents are doing a good job of blanketing Boldin, so Flacco has looked to incumbent game-breaker Derrick Mason, who has six touchdown catches in his last nine games. TE Todd Heap's return from a hamstring injury should help put pressure on the Chiefs' secondary.
This group needs to step up its game in a hurry. The Bengals' front four consistently applied pressure to Flacco with minimal resistance, while the interior of the offensive line couldn't get much of a push. OTs Michael Oher, who struggled late in the season partly because of the effects of a knee injury, and Marshal Yanda can't afford another letdown against a strong Chiefs pass rush.
The Ravens have picked the perfect time to play their best vs. the run. In the last three games, they've limited New Orleans to 27 total yards, Cleveland's Peyton Hillis to 35 yards, and Cincinnati's Cedric Benson to 53 yards. And it all starts up front. DT Haloti Ngata, who had 63 tackles in the regular season, will test the strong interior of the Chiefs' offensive line.
Generally speaking, this group didn't play as well down the stretch as it did earlier in the season. ILB Ray Lewis had one of his better games in recent weeks vs. the Bengals. But two of the most consistent difference-makers here are OLB Jarret Johnson and ILB Jameel McClain. Rush OLB Terrell Suggs, who struggled badly vs. Cincinnati, needs to turn up the heat on Cassel.
SS Ed Reed has sore ribs, and that has to concern the Ravens because he's their best playmaker on defense. Reed also is particularly important in mismatches that the Chiefs like to create by spreading the field and using two of their speedier players, Charles and WR Dexter McCluster, in the slot. The Chiefs are likely to target CB Lardarius Webb, who struggled vs. Cincinnati.
This unit excels at playing the field-position game. Pro Bowler Billy Cundiff is a reliable pressure kicker, but his most impressive stat is an NFL-best 40 touchbacks on kickoffs that tied a single-season record Mitch Berger set in 1994. P Sam Koch is second in the league with 39 punts inside the 20. David Reed leads the NFL with a 29.3-yard average on kickoff returns.
John Harbaugh's considerable postseason experience should serve the Ravens well. But even in leading the team to a 12-4 record, he has left himself open to some questions. His offense has not made the progress that was expected after a heavy investment in the receiving corps. The defense has shown some inconsistency that has been a little discomforting. This is an important game to his reputation.
In what looks like a classic strength-on-strength matchup, the edge has to go the Ravens. What the Chiefs do best is run the ball, and the Ravens are one of the best run-stuffing teams in the league. The difference in the outcome, then, is likely to be left to the team capable of producing more big plays. And that would have to be the Ravens, provided Flacco and his receivers can make it happen.
Matt Cassel's season ended on a sour note. But the Chiefs remain encouraged by the significant progress he has made from his shakiness earlier in the year. Cassel's turning point came when, in a lost cause at Denver, he threw for 469 yards and four touchdowns. He has been mostly efficient since. To rattle him, the Ravens first must be able to stop the NFL's best rushing attack.
Jamaal Charles finished the regular season as the NFL's second-leading rusher (1,467 yards), but was tops in yards per carry (6.4). His explosiveness and tremendous outside speed will be difficult for even the Ravens, whose defense ranks fifth against the run, to handle. Thomas Jones, who joined Kansas City after an impressive 2009 season with the New York Jets, is a tough and hard-running inside complement.
Dwayne Bowe should give the Ravens' secondary plenty to worry about. He caught 15 touchdowns in the regular season, but 14 came in the first 11 games. Not coincidentally, the game in which he got his only score in the last five (Week 16) was when the Chiefs had their highest point total during that stretch. Rookie TE Tony Moeaki has become a reliable target.
LT Branden Albert must rebound from a poor season-finale vs. Oakland because most of the responsibility to keep Cassel upright is on him. G Brian Waters and two key offseason pickups, C Casey Wiegmann and G Ryan Lilja, have their hands full against the dominant interior of the Ravens' defensive line. But the Chiefs' league-best running game is proof that they win most of those battles.
This unit is the team's most glaring weakness. DE Wallace Gilberry, who works mostly in a reserve role, has seven sacks, but three came against St. Louis in Week 15. Still, it's more than the Chiefs have gotten lately from their regulars at the position, Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey. The Ravens' running game will try to exploit smallish NT Ron Edwards.
The Chiefs' No. 1 key to victory would figure to be getting a huge performance from their biggest game-changer, OLB Tamba Hali, who finished second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks. If the Ravens' offensive line doesn't show huge improvement from Week 17, Hali could very well take the game over. ILB Derrick Johnson, a tackling machine, needs to be a big factor vs. the run.
This is a young group with plenty of talent, but whose inexperience could pose a problem under playoff pressure. Rookie SS Eric Berry is a highly versatile player the Chiefs are able to utilize in multiple ways. Although his greatest strength is providing run support, he has steadily improved his pass-coverage skills. Flacco also needs to keep an eye out for rookie FS Kendrick Lewis.
Kicker Ryan Succop, whom the Ravens had hoped to sign after the 2009 draft but couldn't because the Chiefs made him the final pick overall, is solid. With the Chiefs struggling to cover punts toward the end of the regular season, P Dustin Colquitt has to be particularly careful about not outkicking his coverage. McCluster and Javier Arenas are long overdue to produce big returns.
Todd Haley has made himself a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate. He has done a better job of controlling his fiery personality and benefited greatly from two highly-accomplished coordinators, Charlie Weis on offense and Romeo Crennel on defense. Weis has been particularly helpful to Cassel's growth. However, Weis' plans to become the University of Florida's OC after the playoffs could be a distraction.
There's a tendency to look at clubs that make such a dramatic turnaround from one year to the next as a fluke, but that's not the case with the Chiefs. They have the NFL's best rushing attack. They have some highly talented play-makers on defense. And they're playing before a raucous home crowd. What they don't have is the Ravens' postseason experience, which will likely hurt.