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The Kansas City Chiefs host the Baltimore Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. It’s an important AFC game with playoff implications for both teams — and here are five things to watch:
1. Irresistible force... meet immovable object
The Chiefs have played some good defenses this season. They’ve played three of the top 10 scoring defenses and beaten two of them. They’ve beaten three of the top 10 in total yardage allowed and three of the top 10 in yards allowed per play. They’ve already had six of the top 10 teams in net yards per passing attempt on their schedule and emerged victorious against five of them. Four of the top 10 in drive-scoring percentage have fallen to the Chiefs.
The Ravens are ranked first in every one of those statistical categories.
To put it simply, the Ravens defense does just about everything well. But it does have a few weaknesses. Only one defensive unit has forced fewer turnovers, so it’s not unsurprising that only one defense has a lower interception percentage. They’re good at getting quarterback pressures and sacks but not great.
You could say that the Ravens are sort of the antithesis of the modern NFL defense.
What do I mean by that?
If you’ve been keeping track of the media buzz about the NFL’s “offensive explosion” this season, you know the theory: that it’s now possible to build a championship-caliber team with a high-powered offense and an average (or even weak) defense — as long as that defense can create turnovers and sacks that will stop enough of your opponent’s drives that you can outscore them.
In short... a team like the Kansas City Chiefs.
So in this matchup, we have a team built on the modern model facing an old-school top-tier defense — exactly the kind of game that many Chiefs fans have been worried about having to play in the postseason. And it will be played in near-playoff conditions: in cold weather, with a lot on the line for both teams.
Should the Chiefs win, it will help validate the newfangled theory. But should they lose, those who have been worrying about the Chiefs in the postseason will have even more sleepless nights ahead of them in January.
2. The new Ravens offense
Through Week 6, the Ravens were 4-2 — including victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos. But then came games against the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and their second division game with the Steelers. The Ravens lost all three — and to make matters worse, starting quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury in the Steelers game.
Flacco finished the game — saying afterward it didn’t affect him — but following their Week 10 bye, rookie Lamar Jackson bypassed Robert Griffin III to become the starting quarterback.
The Ravens have been an entirely different offensive team with Jackson. With Flacco starting, the team was averaging 274 passing yards per game. With Jackson, the team is averaging 156. Under Flacco, the Ravens were gaining 93 yards rushing per game. Under Jackson, it’s been 239 — and Jackson has accounted for 88 of those yards in every game. The Ravens have been using him as a rushing weapon — only a handful of Jackson’s 54 carries have been scrambles — and have won three games against the Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons in the process.
It would be fair to say that beating those three teams isn’t much of a feat — their combined record is 11-25 — but just the same, winning NFL games isn’t easy under any circumstances. It will be fascinating to see how this game plays out — which brings us to...
3. The Chiefs game plan
Given the success the Ravens have had running the ball in recent weeks with their rookie quarterback in the mix, what would your game plan be?
Focus on stopping the running game, forcing Jackson to try to beat you over the top and hope you can force him into making mistakes? Jackson has thrown four interceptions in the three games he’s been the starting quarterback, so that could be an approach worth considering — except that the Chiefs have been pretty bad at stopping the run! With a few exceptions in individual games, opponents have pretty much rushed at will against Kansas City.
Another way to achieve the same result: get a big lead early, which would also force the Ravens to abandon the running game. This approach has worked in a number of the team’s victories this season. But that also might be hard to do, because the Ravens defense is so good — arguably better than any defense the Chiefs have faced so far.
So one of the things we might learn this week is whether the Chiefs run defense has been bad because a) certain players have failed to execute, b) the defensive scheme is terrible, or c) the Chiefs are willing to concede the running game in order to take away big passing plays — one thing that most certainly can beat a quick-scoring offense like the Chiefs have.
Or we might learn that the Chiefs offense is so good that even a well-balanced defense can’t stop it — rendering the problems with the defense moot.
So regardless of how the Chiefs choose to plan for this game, execution is going to be a key factor. They’re not going to be able to afford mistakes on either defense or offense.
4. Ware, West, Williams and Williams, LLC
I really dislike the term “running back by committee.” It brings back too many memories of Chiefs teams that could raise clouds of dust but do little else offensively. I mean... seriously! Why “three yards and a cloud of dust”? Why not four? Or five? Wouldn’t that work much better?
I much prefer the term limited liability corporation to describe what the Chiefs will be doing with their running backs now that Kareem Hunt is no longer on the roster. Why not? Isn’t it a group of individual players who will utilize their individual strengths toward achieving a corporate goal, while participating in a way that minimizes their personal deficiencies?
In truth, an LLC of sorts has been the norm for the Chiefs this season anyway — players-not-named-Kareem-Hunt have been on the field for 27 percent of the team’s running back snaps before the Oakland Raiders game — but now we’re going to see something a little different.
The corporate press release would read something like this:
Following some personal decisions that reflected badly on the firm, the Board of Directors has voted to remove Hunt, giving Spencer Ware the corner office. Charcandrick West — removed by the Board after a cost-benefit analysis in September — has now returned as a senior partner, but will primarily serve in an advisory capacity. The two junior associates — Damien Williams and his brother-from-another-mother, Darrel Williams — will now see an increased role in day-to-day operations; Darrel, in particular, has distinguished himself in the Special Projects Division and richly deserves this promotion.
But even though West has returned as a senior partner, don’t expect to see him on the field with the Chiefs offense very often. As the AP Nerd Squad’s Matt Lane argued on Monday, the Chiefs kept Darrel Williams on the initial 53-man roster for a reason: because they think he can produce. Up to now, he hasn’t had much opportunity to show what he can do on offense because three running backs were in front of him on the depth chart, so the Chiefs have utilized him on special teams. Now that this number has been reduced to two, Darrel Williams is going to start getting some offensive snaps.
So West hasn’t been brought in to become a backup running back. Just like players such as Frank Zombo and Nate Orchard, West — generally speaking — is on the team to take the place of younger players on special teams because they are now needed on offense or defense. Meanwhile, should something awful happen — for example, Ware and Damien Williams are both knocked out of a game — West has enough knowledge to step in without having had first-team practice snaps during the week.
5. Old home week
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is one of seven (!) current NFL head coaches who have served under Andy Reid as assistant coaches. Along with former Chiefs offensive coordinators Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, the others include Ron Rivera, Pat Shurmur, Todd Bowles and Sean McDermott.
In addition, Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg served under Reid from 2003 through 2012 with the Philadelphia Eagles.
So to say that these coaches know (and respect) each other is an understatement.
You can expect that these men will be able to make good guesses about what the others will do — and want to spring surprises on each other, too. It wouldn’t be shocking for any of them to trot out an exotic play they discussed years ago — but never utilized at the time — in order to get a leg up in this game.
But now that I am bringing up this subject for the second week in a row, a thought occurs to me: after so many years as a head coach — and with so many active NFL coaches now on his coaching tree — is part of the reason Andy Reid has been so successful in Kansas City simply because he knows so many other head coaches so well, he can anticipate what they will do against him?