As the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills were playing in their epic game Sunday night, it was hard to imagine how the Ravens could compete with either of those teams or the Cincinnati Bengals.
The conclusion was simple: They couldn’t.
If the Ravens had made the playoffs, they would have been a one-and-done reject like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were blown out by the Chiefs in the wild-card round. Among other things, the Bengals, Chiefs and Bills played at a faster pace with much more intensity and speed than the Ravens. To me, that shows Baltimore might be in for a bit of a rebuild, and general manager Eric DeCosta must have a good offseason in free agency and April’s NFL draft.
The Ravens have few players who could have started on the defensive front sevens of Buffalo, Kansas City and Cincinnati, and they certainly couldn’t match the speed, play-making ability or offensive schemes of those teams. Baltimore lost its final six games of the 2021 regular season — five of those by eight combined points — to be eliminated from the playoffs, but that fits into the profile of recent years, too.
They are good enough to win 10, 11, possibly 12 games a year, but they can’t go deep into the postseason.
Did you see that game Sunday night?
It all starts with the quarterback. Jackson isn’t in the class with Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow or Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who are under contract for the immediate future while Jackson’s contract negotiations are still ongoing. Jackson covered up a lot of the Ravens’ problems but he would have been exposed in the playoffs against the best of the best in the playoffs. Allen and Mahomes combined for 707 yards and seven touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 42-36 overtime win in the divisional round Sunday night in what some have described as the best playoff game in NFL history.
Burrow was sacked nine times but still completed 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards in the Bengals’ 19-16 upset of the top-seeded Titans on Saturday. With Burrow, he can win the game from the pocket. With Mahomes and Allen, they can win it from anywhere on the field with their arms or their legs.
The difference, however, between the three teams and the Ravens isn’t just about quarterback play. Kansas City has top-notch speed in receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman and the NFL’s best tight end in Travis Kelce, while the Bengals have burners and budding stars in receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Buffalo has playmakers in receivers Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis.
The Ravens are young don’t have a legitimate no. 1 receiver on their roster. They have speed with Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay, but the Ravens’ passing game isn’t as sophisticated as Cincinnati’s, Kansas City’s or Buffalo’s. Those teams scheme well and run precise combination and clearing routes. Chiefs coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy put on a clinic in that regard against the Bills.
Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati also complement their passing games with strong pass rushers. When they get a lead and opposing teams are forced to throw, they can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. The Chiefs have ends Chris Jones, Frank Clark and linebacker Melvin Ingram. Buffalo can get pressure with ends Mario Addison and Greg Rousseau while Cincinnati has ends Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson and tackle BJ Hill. The Ravens don’t have anyone of that caliber on their roster.
The Ravens will still be able to compete, and they will stick with their formula for success because they’ve invested a lot of money and time into the run-dominated offense of coordinator Greg Roman. Pending rehabilitation from injury, they should get back their top two running backs in JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards, as well as Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley. With another year, Jackson should improve and get a better read on defenses that have confused him with a lot of blitzes and pressure.
The key, though, is DeCosta. The Ravens have built this team from outside in, meaning they need interior linemen on both sides of the ball. They don’t need more maulers on the offensive line, but versatile performers who can both run and pass block.
On defense, they need an infusion of young talent on the line, as well as at linebacker. Second-year linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison had disappointing seasons. Veterans Josh Bynes and Justin Houston have both lost a step. DeCosta has to sign free agents who can have an impact, not the fading ones he brought in a year ago like wide receiver Sammy Watkins and offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
If the Ravens can control the time of possession, they’ll be able to diminish potential scoring threats. If not, the three top teams in the AFC this year will battle it out again in 2022 for conference supremacy.
The Ravens probably have another offseason to figure it out. On Friday, coach John Harbaugh announced the team had fired defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. When coordinators start to leave losing teams, fingers are getting pointed.
To borrow an old NFL saying, that means it is time for the next man up. In this situation, it’s Roman, and then Harbaugh.