Under normal circumstances, we’d be talking about the Ravens playing Kansas City as another coming-of-age opportunity to prove themselves and get over the hump after falling to the Chiefs in each of the last three years.
After an extraordinary run of injuries in a matter of weeks, however, Baltimore looks more like a team just trying to hold on and find itself at the moment. That hardly means the season is over — far from it — but playing the healthy Chiefs this early doesn’t bode well for a John Harbaugh team already playing on a short week and coming off its first season-opening loss since 2015.
Taking down Kansas City won’t be easy, but that’s why they play the games and a packed M&T Bank Stadium will have something to say about the popular expectation entering this one. The Ravens are also 15-2 in prime-time home games — even if the Chiefs handed them that second loss in Week 3 last year.
It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the 11th time in the regular season with Kansas City owning the 7-3 advantage and having won the last four meetings dating back to 2015. Since becoming Baltimore’s head coach in 2008, Harbaugh is just 1-5 against Andy Reid, whom he coached with in Philadelphia from 1999-2007.
Below are five predictions for Sunday night:
1. The Ravens will change up their style by blitzing Patrick Mahomes just 25 percent of the time. We know the history here as Wink Martindale loves to blitz and be aggressive while Mahomes owns a 134.0 passer rating against the blitz in his first three meetings with Baltimore. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens blitzed 47 percent of the time in last year’s game with Mahomes responding in those instances by completing 17 of 20 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. That’s not to suggest the defense will be completely conservative, but using more simulated pressures and zone coverage could be the changeup to confuse Mahomes just long enough for the likes of Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh to be disruptive in the pocket. Of course, the injuries in the secondary don’t help, regardless of the defensive approach.
2. Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will collect 120 total yards and a touchdown. In 2018, Chiefs running back Spencer Ware rushed for 75 yards and had 54 yards receiving against Baltimore. Two years ago, Darrel Williams and LeSean McCoy combined for 189 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in the 33-28 final. Last year, Edwards-Helaire caught five passes for 70 yards and added 64 rushing yards. Are you noticing a trend? Reid has shrewdly used the Ravens’ aggressiveness against them with an array of screens and swing passes to his running backs. The Ravens cutting down on their blitzing would help in that regard, but dropping more defenders into coverage could leave them more vulnerable against the run. Edwards-Helaire probably won’t find a ton of room in a conventional rushing sense, but he’ll certainly test Baltimore linebackers already preoccupied with proper coverage drops to try to slow Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce.
3. Sammy Watkins will catch his first touchdown as a Raven to continue his good start. Lost in the disappointing outcome in Las Vegas was how productive Watkins was with four receptions for 96 yards, which included the beautiful 49-yard strike from Lamar Jackson that set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. According to Next Gen Stats, the 28-year-old posted the top speed of any NFL wide receiver on that long catch in Week 1, an indication that the oft-injured wideout is healthy. The Ravens will need major contributions from Watkins with Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay potentially less than 100 percent after nursing ailments during the week and the Chiefs’ history being able to limit Mark Andrews.
4. Kansas City defensive ends Chris Jones and Frank Clark will combine for three sacks. The version of Ronnie Stanley we saw against the Raiders wasn’t of much help anyway if we’re being honest, but the potential of Alejandro Villanueva moving to left tackle and utility lineman Patrick Mekari starting at right tackle brings very little confidence against the Pro Bowl duo of Jones and Clark. Yes, you’d expect Greg Roman to provide Villanueva and Mekari help with fullback Patrick Ricard and blocking tight end Eric Tomlinson, but such a strategy limits passing concepts and allows Kansas City to clog up the middle of the field, which is what the Ravens don’t want. You just can’t subtract Pro Bowl tackles like Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. from the equation without expecting major problems to follow.
5. Jackson and the Ravens will battle, but Kansas City will remain a step or two ahead in a 33-24 final. Counting out such a talented quarterback often leaves critics feeling embarrassed, which is why I expect a better performance from Jackson than last year’s meeting when he shockingly failed to crack 100 passing yards against a defense that blitzed him and disguised coverages effectively. The home team still has talent on both sides of the ball, and the Chiefs have a habit of playing stretches of clunky football as though they’re bored or even toying with the opponent. If the Ravens can force an early takeaway and jump out to a two-score lead, they can try to really ramp up their running game against a questionable rush defense and attempt to limit Mahomes’ possessions. But the margin for error is just so small against the Chiefs, meaning you have to finish drives with touchdowns and hope you can coax Mahomes into making enough uncharacteristic mistakes to have a chance. Even with much healthier rosters, the Ravens haven’t been able to do that with each of their three losses against the Mahomes-led Chiefs getting progressively worse. They’ll reverse that competitive trend by hanging tough this time around, but the injuries are just too much to overcome as the Ravens continue to search for their early-season bearings.