The NFL’s two hottest teams to close the regular season will now meet for the right to go to the AFC Championship game.
The Ravens won their last five regular-season games by a combined 97 points while Buffalo won its final six by a total of 119 and was a Week 10 Arizona Hail Mary away from 10 straight victories to close the regular season. Of course, both teams came away with one-score wins in last weekend’s wild-card round to set up a showdown between the best two quarterbacks from the 2018 draft class in reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, who’s blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate in his third season with the Bills.
“People always say ‘his big arm,’ but he’s doing it all out there,” Jackson said. “He’s getting out of the pocket, taking advantage of what the defense gives him, throwing the ball on a rope, and he’s slinging the ball like a Patrick Mahomes. He’s just helping his team out a lot. He’s one of the key reasons they’re putting up so many points and winning games.”
It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet in the playoffs for the very first time. The Ravens lead the regular-season series by a 6-3 margin, which includes their 27-24 win in Orchard Park in early December of last season.
Below are five predictions for Saturday night:
1. Both defenses will collect four or more sacks. In a pass-happy league in which we often see quarterbacks getting the ball away as quickly as possible, Allen and Jackson have the league’s third- and fourth-slowest times to throw respectively, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That speaks to how much both like to extend plays and improvise, making them fun to watch and dangerous to opposing defenses. Of course, the potential drawback is taking more sacks, which we saw with Jackson being dropped five times against Tennessee last week. Considering the secondary is a strength for both teams, these fronts should have a split-second longer to get to these mobile quarterbacks — assuming they don’t take off.
2. Josh Allen will throw for 275 yards and two touchdowns, one to star receiver Stefon Diggs. Much as been said this week about the test of wills between Wink Martindale’s aggressive nature and Allen’s ability to beat blitzes this season, but the Bills’ style of play and many weapons at the receiver position make this a different challenge than stopping a Titans play-action passing game that depends on Derrick Henry runs as its foundation. Buffalo passes on first down at will and likes to use four-wide and empty sets, which have given Baltimore some challenges this season. With the former Maryland standout Diggs making plays against the local team that passed on him multiple times in the 2015 draft, Allen will join Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Andy Dalton as the only quarterbacks to throw for at least 275 yards and two touchdowns against Baltimore this season.
3. Mark Andrews will go over 85 receiving yards for the first time since Week 11 and catch a touchdown. Tre’Davious White is one of the best outside corners in the league while Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde continue to be among the NFL’s best safety duos, but Indianapolis tight ends piled up 14 catches for 136 yards against the Bills in last week’s wild-card round. The short-to-intermediate portion of the field being vulnerable wasn’t a fluke as the Bills allowed the most catches and yards to tight ends this season. The Ravens don’t have Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle in the picture this time around, but Andrews has the potential to burn the Bills the way Marquise Brown hurt the Titans last week.
4. Lamar Jackson will rush for at least 75 yards for the sixth time in his last seven games. From the moment Jackson took over as starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season, we’ve seen the Ravens embarrass good, bad, and indifferent run defenses. However, a unit occasionally has a blueprint to slow them down — relatively speaking anyway. Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and head coach Sean McDermott devised a plan last season to limit Jackson to 40 rushing yards and the Ravens collectively to 118 on just 3.8 yards per carry. The 2020 Bills defense isn’t as good against the run, but what those defensive minds cook up against a ground game now featuring more counter schemes, edge runs, and explosive rookie J.K. Dobbins should be interesting. Either way, Jackson will still run for his.
5. Despite Allen’s best efforts to crash the Mahomes-Jackson AFC party, the Ravens will punch a ticket to Arrowhead with a narrow 26-24 win. This is a game that comes down to a team with a great passing game going up against one sporting a tremendous running game and the superior defense. It’s the kind of matchup profile reminding you of the Ravens facing Kansas City in recent years — especially with Allen being so good against the blitz — and we know how that’s played out for Baltimore. We’ll find out just how close the Bills are to becoming the Chiefs after making a strong argument as the AFC’s best team late in the season. Ultimately, a great passing game is more valuable than a great rushing attack and will overcome a very good defense more often than not under normal conditions. However, Saturday’s weather forecast calling for stiff winds and possible snow looms large with the Bills’ dependence on downfield throws and the Ravens offense being better suited for wintry conditions. In a very close game that could feature even more scoring if the weather is more favorable, a few errant Allen passes could prove to be the difference. The Ravens will best Buffalo to advance to their first AFC Championship game since 2012 where they’ll meet defending champion Kansas City.