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NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (12-4) at Kansas City (10-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - What's uncharted territory for many members of the Kansas City Chiefs will be old hat for the Baltimore Ravens, who'll be entering this Sunday's AFC Wild Card showdown with the surprise postseason participants at Arrowhead Stadium seeking to win an opening-round playoff game on the road for a third consecutive year.
The Chiefs find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after orchestrating one of the NFL's best turnarounds this year. After winning a mere four games during head coach Todd Haley's debut campaign of 2009 and 10 times total over the previous three seasons, Kansas City broke out with a 10-6 record that was good enough to earn the previously-fallen franchise its first AFC West title since it recorded 13 victories under Dick Vermeil in 2003.
A dynamic ground game that produced the most rushing yards in the league and the sound play under center from quarterback Matt Cassel have been two factors in the Chiefs' about-face, as has a renewed dominance on home turf. Kansas City went 7-1 at Arrowhead Stadium over the course of the regular season, with the lone blemish a 31-10 setback to Oakland in last week's finale, and have held the opposition to 14 points or less in all but one of those triumphs.
That impressive record still won't likely faze the battle-tested Ravens, a team that finds itself in a very familiar position heading into this year's Super Bowl tournament. Baltimore earned a Wild Card berth in the AFC for the third straight season after being edged out by rival Pittsburgh for the North Division crown, and will take to the road in a playoff setting for the sixth time in the accomplished three-year tenure of head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Ravens won twice in enemy venues as a sixth seed to advance to the 2008 AFC Championship Game in Harbaugh's first season, and overpowered favored New England in an authoritative 33-14 victory during a first-round clash last January. That result stands as the Patriots' only loss in their last 31 outings at Gillette Stadium in which Tom Brady has started at quarterback.
Baltimore is seeded fifth in this year's AFC group and enters Sunday's matchup riding a four-game winning streak. The Ravens forced five Cincinnati turnovers in a 13-7 home verdict over the fellow division member Bengals last Sunday, one week after coming up with four takeaways in a 20-10 decision at Cleveland.
While Baltimore has a proven track record at this all-important time of the season, the Chiefs will be out to end a painfully-long winless drought in the postseason. Kansas City has lost its last six playoff tests, including three at home, since Hall of Famer Joe Montana led the team to a defeat of the Houston Oilers in a 1993 AFC Divisional Round bout.
The Chiefs' most recent postseason appearance was a 23-8 opening-round loss at Indianapolis on Jan. 6, 2007, and they haven't played at Arrowhead in the playoffs since a 38-31 besting by the Colts on Jan. 11, 2004.
These teams have met five times in the regular season but never in the playoffs, with Kansas City holding a 3-2 overall edge. The Ravens have won the last two encounters between the clubs, though, the most recent being a 38-24 decision in Baltimore in the 2009 opener. The Ravens have also prevailed in their only previous visit to Arrowhead Stadium, a 20-10 verdict in 2006.
Harbaugh owns a 3-2 career postseason record and as previously stated, has won an AFC Wild Card Round game on the road in each of the past two years. Harbaugh is 1-0 all-time against both the Chiefs and Haley, who will be participating in the playoffs for the first time as a sideline boss.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Look for Baltimore to attempt to replicate the formula that worked so well in last year's playoff upset of the Patriots. The Ravens racked up 234 rushing yards in that contest, with primary ball-carrier Ray Rice (1220 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 6 total TD) amassing 155 yards and two touchdowns on 22 attempts, and held the football nearly 32 1/2 minutes in a successful attempt to keep Brady and his mates off the field. Baltimore showed signs of being a dominant smash-mouth team late this season, with Rice running for 153 yards and a score in a critical Week 15 win over New Orleans and the offense managing 161 yards on the ground against the Browns the following Sunday, but the unit has also had its struggles as of late. The Ravens had a season-low 199 total yards and converted a poor 2-of-11 third-down chances last week, while Flacco (3622 passing yards, 25 TD, 10 INT) was sacked four times. Protecting the quarterback has been a sore spot at times for Baltimore, but if Flacco does get adequate time to survey the field, the former first-round pick has a trio of established weapons in veteran wide receivers Anquan Boldin (64 receptions, 7 TD) and Derrick Mason (61 receptions, 7 TD) and tight end Todd Heap (40 receptions, 5 TD). Rice is a very dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield as well, finishing third among NFL backs in both receptions and receiving yards (556) during the regular season.
The Chiefs ranked a respectable 14th in rushing defense (110.3 ypg) this year but can be vulnerable in that area, as the Raiders showed by running for 209 yards in last Sunday's victory. Kansas City has surrendered 160 yards or more on the ground in three of its last five games, meaning standout inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (121 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and a solid three-man front anchored by ends Glenn Dorsey (69 tackles, 2 sacks) and Shaun Smith (56 tackles, 1 sack) will have to win its individual battles and prevent the Ravens from dictating the pace. The Chiefs have usually held their own against opposing aerial attacks, with a young and talented secondary headlined by cornerback Brandon Flowers (65 tackles, 2 INT, 14 PD) and the rookie safety tandem of Eric Berry (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INT) and Kendrick Lewis (30 tackles, 3 INT) yielding a 54.9 completion rate on the season, the third-lowest in the league. It helps that the backfield has one of the game's premier pass rushers on its side in outside linebacker Tamba Hali (52 tackles, 14.5 sacks), who ended atop the AFC in sacks after notching 2 1/2 in the finale with the Raiders.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
It's no secret as to what Kansas City wants to do offensively. The Chiefs had the most rushing yards (164.2 ypg) and attempts (556) during the regular season and boasts a terrific two-back combo in Jamaal Charles (1467 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 8 total TD) and veteran Thomas Jones (896 rushing yards, 6 TD, 14 receptions). The lightning-quick Charles led the NFL in yards per carry (6.4) and is a true home-run hitter as both a runner and receiver, while the physical Jones is used to soften defenses between the tackles. The duo has also made life easier for Cassel (3116 rushing yards, 27 TD, 7 INT), who's done a very good job overseeing an offense that committed the second-fewest turnovers (14) in the league this year. While Kansas City has employed a mostly conservative game plan under coordinator and ex-Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, the team will take some shots down the field with big-play receiver Dwayne Bowe (72 receptions, 1162 yards), the NFL's leader with 15 touchdown receptions and who averaged better than 16 yards per grab in a career-best performance. He and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters each missed some practice time this week with an illness, but both are fully expected to be available for Sunday's game.
Keeping the Chiefs' potent ground game under wraps will be the top priority for Baltimore, as Kansas City was held to 115 rushing yards or less in five of its six losses. Stopping the run is also one of the Ravens' strengths, with their star-studded defense ranking fifth in that category (93.9 ypg) for the year and limiting their past six foes under that above-mentioned 115-yard barrier. A fierce front seven contains three Pro Bowl honorees in iconic inside linebacker Ray Lewis (139 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), lineman Haloti Ngata (63 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (68 tackles, 11 sacks), an elite edge rusher with the capability of taking over a game. The secondary also sports a true difference-maker in free safety Ed Reed (37 tackles, 16 PD), an exceptional ball-hawk who led the NFL with eight interceptions in spite of missing the season's first six weeks while recovering from hip surgery. The perennial All-Pro, who came up with a pair of picks in each of Baltimore's final two games, is dealing with sore ribs but isn't in danger of missing Sunday's tilt. Cornerback Josh Wilson (40 tackles, 3 INT, 14 PD) is a question mark, however, after sustaining a shoulder stinger against the Bengals.
This is generally a source of strength on the Baltimore side, as Harbaugh was a longtime special teams coordinator in Philadelphia prior to becoming the team's head coach. Kicker Billy Cundiff earned a Pro Bowl citation after making good on 26-of-29 field goal tries and excelling on kickoffs, where his 38 touchbacks were far and away the most in the league. Punter Sam Koch also turned in a strong year, placing 39 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line (2nd overall) and helping the Ravens place fourth in the NFL in net punting (39.2 avg.). Main kick returner David Reed (29.3 avg., 1 TD) will likely miss a third straight week with a wrist injury, with reserve running back Jalen Parmele (23.4 avg.) set to handle that assignment, while second-year pro Lardarius Webb averaged a solid 9.5 yards taking back punts.
The Chiefs have also gotten good work out of their punter, with the strong- legged Dustin Colquitt averaging 44.4 yards per boot and sending 33 shots within the opposing 20-yard line (4th overall). Kicker Ryan Succop endured a bit of a sophomore slump, however, hitting on just 77 percent (20-of-26) of his field goal attempts after going 25-of-29 during his 2009 debut. Return duties were split by a pair of rookie draft choices, cornerback Javier Arenas (21.2 avg. on KR, 8.1 avg. on PR) and wide receiver Dexter McCluster (20.3 avg.). Neither stood out on kickoffs, but the shifty McCluster averaged 15.5 yards on 13 punt runbacks and had a 94-yard touchdown in Kansas City's season-opening win over rival San Diego.
Chiefs fans have waited a long time for Sunday to come, and you can bet the crowd at one of what's notoriously one of the NFL's most difficult stops for opponents will have an impact. The Ravens have been down this road before, however, and their success in visiting venues during the playoffs over the past two years has to be taken into consideration when breaking down this game. Baltimore may have a talent advantage on the still-developing Chiefs to go along with its clear edge in experience, and a defense that was top-notch down the stretch of the regular season stands at least a reasonable chance of neutralizing Kansas City's prolific ground attack, an essential element to the Ravens' chances of victory. The Chiefs likely won't make it easy, but Baltimore has both the personnel and pedigree to come out on top of what should be a hard-hitting and close contest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, Chiefs 17
01/06 11:47:29 ET