When the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills played their epic game on Sunday night, it was hard to imagine how the Ravens could compete with either of those teams or the Cincinnati Bengals.
The conclusion was simple: they couldn’t.
If the Ravens had made the playoffs, they would have been rejected once and for all, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost to the Chiefs in the wildcard round. Among other things, the Bengals, Chiefs and Bills played at a faster pace, with much more intensity and speed than the Ravens. In my opinion, this shows that Baltimore can rebuild a bit, and general manager Eric DeCosta should have a good off-season in free agency and in the April NFL Draft.
The Ravens have few players who could start in the defensive sevens of Buffalo, Kansas City, and Cincinnati, and they certainly couldn’t match the speed, play ability, or offensive formations of those teams. Baltimore lost the last six games of the 2021 regular season — five of them by eight points — and was eliminated from the playoffs, but that also fits into the profile of recent years.
They’re good enough to win 10, 11, maybe 12 games a year, but they can’t get deep into the playoffs.
Did you see that game on Sunday night?
It all starts with the quarterback. Jackson is not in the same class as Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Barrow or Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who are under contract in the near future while Jackson’s contract negotiations are still ongoing. Jackson covered up many of the Ravens’ problems, but in the playoffs he would have been exposed against the best of the best in the playoffs. Allen and Mahomes combined for 707 yards and seven touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 42-36 overtime win in Sunday night’s divisional round in what some called the best playoff game in NFL history.
Burrow was fired nine times but still completed 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards in the Bengals’ 19-16 upset by the top-seeded Titans on Saturday. With Burrow, he can win the game out of his own pocket. With Mahomes and Allen, they can win from anywhere on the field with their hands or feet.
However, the difference between the three teams and the Ravens is not simply about the quarterback game. Kansas City has top-notch receiving speed in Tyreke Hill and Mekol Hardman and the NFL’s top tight end in Travis Kelsey, while the Bengals have up-and-coming stars in receptions in Jamarr Chase and Tee Higgins. Buffalo have playmakers in wide receivers Stephon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis.
The Ravens are young and don’t have a legitimate #1 receiver on their roster. They have speed with Marquise Brown and Devin DuVernay, but the Ravens’ passing game isn’t as sophisticated as those of Cincinnati, Kansas City, or Buffalo. These teams are good at planning and laying out precise combinations and clearing routes. Chiefs coach Andy Reed and offensive coordinator Eric Biniemi made a clinic against the Bills in this regard.
Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati also complement their passing games with strong pass rushers. When they get ahead and the opposing teams are forced to throw, they can put their ears back and catch up with the quarterback. The Chiefs have Chris Jones, Frank Clark and linebacker Melvin Ingram. Buffalo can apply pressure with ends from Mario Addison and Greg Russo, while Cincinnati has ends from Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson and tackle BJ Hill. There is no one of that caliber in the Ravens.
The Ravens will still be able to compete and they will stick to their formula for success because they have invested a lot of money and time into running-dominated offense coordinator Greg Roman. While awaiting recovery from injury, they must bring back two top runners in J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, as well as Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley. With another year, Jackson should improve and learn better the defense that has bogged him down with a lot of glare and pressure.
The key point is DeCosta. The Ravens built this team from outside to inside, which means they need inside liners on both sides of the ball. They don’t need more thugs in the offensive line, but they need versatile performers who can both run and block.
Defensively, they need a surge of young talent both on the line and in midfield. Sophomore linebackers Patrick Quinn and Malik Harrison had disappointing seasons. Veterans Josh Bynes and Justin Houston both lost a step. DeCosta should sign free agents who can make an impact, not the fading ones he brought in a year ago, like wide receiver Sammy Watkins and offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
If the Ravens can control the time of possession, they can reduce the potential threat of a goal. If not, this year’s top three AFC teams will battle it out again in 2022 for the top spot in the conference.
The Ravens probably have one more offseason to figure it out. On Friday, coach John Harbaugh announced that the team had fired defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. When the coordinators start to leave the losing teams, they are pointed with the finger.
Borrowing from an old NFL saying, it means it’s time for the next player. In this situation it is Roman and then Harbaugh.