Baltimore Ravens vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City, MO, Arrowhead Stadium
Sunday, January 9, 2011 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Laying the scene
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For both teams, this game is about pride as much as it is about survival to make it to the next week. For the Ravens, a year of major smack-talking from Terrell Suggs towards Tom Brady has made beating the Patriots the standard by which the Ravens will be judged this postseason. If the Ravens can't even make it far enough in the playoffs to face the Patriots, then Suggs' big talk will simply make it look like the Ravens can talk the talk, but cannot walk the walk. For the Chiefs, this game against the Ravens will be a chance to show that the Chiefs are a legitimate team, not an undeserving playoff-crasher who benefited from a weak schedule. If they can cope with the distractions of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis's impending departure to the University of Florida and make a serious playoff run, it will say a lot about the Chiefs' chances of defending their division title.
What Baltimore has to do to win
Most importantly, Joe Flacco has to make the right reads and get all of his receivers involved in the passing game. With a receiving corps that includes Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth, and tight end Todd Heap, the Ravens' offense should have been a lot more diverse than it was this season. With running backs Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and Le'Ron McClain in the backfield, Flacco has been facing defenses whose first priority has been stopping the run, and yet he still hasn't been able to exploit defensive mismatches in the passing game. For the Ravens to advance to the next round of the playoffs, Flacco has to be able to read and exploit Romeo Crennel's defense through the air.
On defense, the Ravens absolutely must account for hybrid running back/receiver/returner Dexter McCluster at all times. McCluster isn't a big guy who can overpower defenses, but his speed makes keeping him from getting the ball in space a big priority for the Ravens. Baltimore's defense is a bit slow in the second level, so if McCluster gets into the open field, he's as good as gone. For this reason, fans should watch where the Chiefs put McCluster on the field, as well as how the Ravens respond to contain him. As well as bottling up McCluster, the Ravens' defense has to collapse the line of scrimmage to keep running backs Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles from getting into rhythm and moving the chains. If the Ravens can do this, it will force the Chiefs into a lot of 3rd-and-long situations and put more of the burden on Matt Cassel's back. While Cassel has put up phenomenal numbers this year, this is his first playoff game, so forcing him to make plays without the help of a strong running game gives the Ravens the best chance of winning.
What Kansas City has to do to win
Use Dexter McCluster to create mismatches. McCluster is the type of player who is so fast when he gets the ball, that defenses have to make sure that they don't let him behind them no matter what. Because of this, other players obtain favorable matchups when defenses key in on McCluster, so even if he doesn't get the ball he is making an impact. For this reason, I encourage them to use this suggestion I had for them last week, and Try This!
On defense, Kansas City absolutely must stuff the run, because if they lose the time-of-possession battle they will have less opportunities to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers. Cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr are a more than adequate tandem, and strong safety Eric Berry is a star in the making, so the Chiefs should not be afraid of committing extra men to the run. One one hand, if Joe Flacco is able to keep his composure in the pocket, this may leave some openings in the passing game, so it's a major gamble. However, if the Chiefs don't gamble, and don't commit to the run, the Ravens will assuredly run all over the Chiefs, so the gamble has to be taken.
Warning to gamblers: I picked all four Wild Card games incorrectly last year and quit picking for the rest of the postseason, so don't bet your life savings on my predictions. With that being said, I'm going to go with the theme of picking teams with the least off-field distractions to win. The Chiefs' offense looked absolutely putrid against the Raiders in Week 17 after the Charlie Weis-to-Florida stories had started flooding the news. With Weis formally accepting the job and theories about his reasons for departure picking up steam, the Chiefs will be less focused, which is majorly bad news in a playoff game. Additionally, the Ravens have been in the playoffs for three years in a row including this year, so it is nothing new to them. Meanwhile, the Chiefs haven't been to the playoffs in many years, so this will be a new experience that they will have to adjust to. - Hank Koebler,IV
Hank Koebler, IV is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.
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