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Couch Groove NFL Wild Card Preview – Baltimore Ravens vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Can Matt Cassel and Todd Haley get it done in the Wild Card roundOVERVIEW
A year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were 4-12, and were the worst team in the entire AFC. Coach Todd Haley had a pretty big mountain to climb if he was going to fix the ailing Arrowheads. He would begin his second year with KC with a bang, not only drafting dynamic safety Eric Berry and picking up veteran running back Thomas Jones, but Haley also acquired Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, the two coordinators who helped Bill Belichick assemble the dynasty in New England. The Chiefs would show marked improvement, winding up 10-6 with the AFC West crown, albeit with bumps in the road. Their somewhat surprising playoff run begins with a challenge against Baltimore. The Baltimore Ravens fell short of the Super Bowl two years ago, and have revamped their offense since then. On Sunday, two tough defenses and two great running games clash for passage to round two.

TEN QUESTIONS

1. How does this Ravens team compare to the Super Bowl Champions of a decade ago?
The balance has shifted more toward ‘middle ground’ for this group of Ravens. The 2000 champions allowed only 10.3 points a game, which is the record for a 16 game season. Although the Ravens are synonymous with “great defense” in regards to common opinion, this season’s defense has left a bit more to be desired. The Ravens are allowing nearly 17 points a game this year, and opponents have put up 23 or more points five times on Ray Lewis and Ed Reed’s squad. However, the 2000 offense is notorious for being a one man show (rookie Jamal Lewis) that floundered around quarterback Trent Dilfer. Joe Flacco’s accuracy may leave fans frustrated at times, but the offense has accounted for seven more touchdowns (36) this season than in 2000 (29). If the 2000 Ravens had the 2010 offense, there isn’t a single historical team that could beat them on paper.

2. How did the Chiefs improve so much?
Moreso, “How did the Chiefs go from third worst defense in 2009 to fourteenth best this year with one major personnel change, drafting Eric Berry?” Bringing in Romeo Crennel to replace Clancy Pendergast can explain that change. Crennel’s experience as an assistant for the Giants and, more famously, for the Patriots have paid off for Todd Haley’s once underachieving defense. 38 sacks as opposed to 22 last season, as well as 18 forced fumbles showcase a much more aggressive defensive unit. On the offensive side, Matt Cassel’s been able to rely heavily on the durable running combo of young Jamaal Charles and experienced Thomas Jones. The Chiefs lead the league with 164.2 rushing yards a game. When you combine the vicious D with the large rushing output, the Chiefs are able to control the clock better than a year ago. It’s the old cliché: control time of possession, win games.

3. Is Charlie Weis leaving for Florida a distraction?
Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weis announced earlier this week that he would be leaving for the University of Florida to be closer to his son, and aid him with his college career. Immediately after the story first came out, coach Todd Haley said he had “no knowledge” of Weis possibly leaving. After Weis’ departure was confirmed, rumors ran rampant that a rift existed between Weis and Haley, which was harshly shot down by Haley (using the words “almost offended” to describe the gossip). Weis has been a lightning rod in the past, most notably during his ill-fated tenure at Notre Dame, which included cheap shots at Pete Carroll on the day he was fired by the school. With the focus on mainly 12 teams now, and especially the 8 playing this weekend, Weis’ exodus is going to be a storyline that receives plenty of airtime as the week goes on.

4. What do Anquan Boldin and Todd Haley know about each other?
Haley worked with Boldin for two seasons in Arizona as the team’s offensive coordinator. In those two seasons (2007-08), Boldin racked up 1,891 yards and 20 touchdowns, playing just 24 games. It was with Haley guiding the offense that Arizona had its greatest season, falling just short in Super Bowl XLIII to Pittsburgh (and was the season that made Kansas City say “That’s our next head coach”). The matchup between the two is made more interesting by their very public spat. In the 2008 NFC Title game, the next-to-last game in which the two worked together, Haley and Boldin had a screaming match on the sidelines early in the game. Haley’s known for being a raging fireball, and Anquan Boldin can be dour and confrontational. The advantage here would go to Haley, who surely knows Boldin’s tendencies, and has definitely given a wealth of information to Romeo Crennel for “preparation purposes”.

5. Is Matt Cassel’s week 17 performance a red flag?
If you’re a Chiefs fan, you’re praying to Hank Stram in the heavens above that KC’s week 17 loss to Oakland isn’t a harbinger. With a chance to lock up the #3 seed and play the muddled, inconsistent Jets, Matt Cassel put up one of the worst performances of his career: 11-for-33 passing, 115 yards, and a pair of interceptions. Don’t try telling me that the Chiefs were dogging it, either. If you’re going to give the game away for a lack of necessity, you don’t have Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones combine for 24 carries. Tyler Palko may have come in for mop-up duty in the fourth quarter, but Cassel was certainly penciled in to go the distance and try and take third seed. Then again, Oakland was playing loose and had nothing to gain. Cassel may play better if the Ravens defense is as tense as he is.

6. Can Joe Flacco possibly be overmatched?
By my count, the Ravens only played six quality defenses this season: Pittsburgh (twice), New England, Atlanta, New York Jets, and Tampa Bay (and that one’s borderline). In those games, Flacco’s been sacked 16 times, thrown 4 picks, and fumbled 4 times. Other than a four-pick performance against the lowly Bengals, the stats largely diminish by average in the other ten games. Flacco’s had a great season (25 TD, 10 INT, 3,622 yards), but when he’s been tested by a team as good or better, he doesn’t exactly dominate them. 3 of the team’s 4 losses came to teams with winning records, and while they were all close games (combined total lost by: 11 points), Flacco doesn’t blow out good teams either. He’s beaten four teams with winning records by a combined 17 points. It’s going to be hard for Flacco to open an offensive flurry on KC’s aggressive defense.

7. Which quarterback has the better shot at winning?
Both Flacco and Cassel have obvious obstacles to overcome. Flacco, as mentioned, struggles with good defenses and is usually unable to establish a dominant presence. If Baltimore didn’t generally have one of the best defenses in the league, Flacco would have to perform more Matt Schaub-like comeback attempts (Schaub knows all about having no defense to supplement him). Cassel, on the other hand, is spoiled by a good running game and a largely conservative offense. As much as Todd Haley loves fourth down gambles and the occasional trick play, Cassel still has the luxury of an experienced offensive line and, of course, Charles and Jones. Against a Ravens defense that provides no margin for error, if he can’t brush off the pass rush, he’s going to make erratic throws that could prove costly. I’m more inclined to say Flacco has the edge due to playoff experience, but that’s about it.

8. What is the weakest spot in the Ravens defense?
It may come as a surprise, but Baltimore’s run defense numbers don’t quite match their reputation as a shutdown machine. Ravens’ opponents have the third least amount of rushing attempts (384), but the Ravens are merely tenth against yards-per-carry (barely better than Houston, as good as Carolina and Minnesota). The Ravens are still a threat against the pass, and that spells trouble for Matt Cassel if he dares throw before he’s ready, but the Chiefs vaunted running game can certainly forge ahead on Baltimore. The Ravens are also tied for the second most penalties on defense (117 penalties for 984 yards; certainly some personal fouls in there), which benefits Kansas City’s run. If the Chiefs can exploit the little known flaws in Baltimore’s run defense, they can frustrate the Ravens into making stupid mistakes for ten or fifteen yards a pop. Smart, conservative play works best for Kansas City here.

9. How did Baltimore’s running game decline so sharply?
In 2009, Ray Rice and Willis McGahee (5.3 and 5.0 yards a carry respectively) plowed in for 19 touchdowns. This year, the numbers dip to 4.0 and 3.8, with 10 touchdowns. Odd thing is, Ray Rice has 53 more carries than a season ago, and his output has declined rapidly. The offensive line has played the entire season (except for right tackle Chris Chester) and the group has been run ragged. Matt Birk, the oft-reliable center, is battling injuries, as is semi-celebrity Michael Oher. Flacco’s taken 78 hits and 40 sacks. Perhaps it’s no secret why winning teams that have consistent defenses aren’t so easily managed by Flacco and the Ravens: the offensive line appears to be breaking down. Late in the season, that’s no surprise, but against a Chiefs team that features a steady pass rush and likes to force fumbles, Flacco’s going to be on the run constantly.

10. Does Todd Haley continue to play conservative as he tends to do?
The elephant in the room that Haley and Matt Cassel don’t like to think about is Ed Reed. Even after nine seasons, Reed still has an eye for the ball and comes up with timely turnovers. If the Ravens can step up early and bring their untested run defense to stifle Charles and Jones early, as well as cover Tony Moeaki over the middle, then they’re going to make Cassel have to throw. This is where it gets interesting, because although Cassel’s greatest feat this season has been finding Dwayne Bowe for 15 touchdowns, he’s going to be forced to throw against Baltimore’s most impenetrable weapon: their secondary. The starting four (Ed Reed, Josh Wilson, Chris Carr, and Dawan Landry) have combined for 13 interceptions. If Charles and Jones can’t wear down Baltimore’s defense, then Cassel has no choice but to throw often, and that’s playing into the Ravens’ hands.

ANALYSIS
Perception seems to be that the Ravens (used to playing in the playoffs on the road, and generally good at it) will march into Arrowhead and stomp the AFC West champions. While the Chiefs have had their share of perplexing losses, they’re still a dominant home team. In fact, their only home loss this season was the inexplicable blowout defeat to Oakland on Sunday. Arrowhead can be mighty loud, and a quarterback like Joe Flacco who doesn’t always handle pressure well may find himself trying to reconcile a way to victory late. It’s going to be a close game I think, and when everything stacks up stat-wise, you find two very evenly matched teams. The deciding factor will be Baltimore’s secondary. Ed Reed and company have made their living by ending drives and returning picks for scores. I think Matt Cassel’s first playoff start will be a painful learning experience.

SCORE: Ravens 20, Chiefs 17

Justin Henry is the owner and (currently) sole writer of Couch Groove Football. He can be found on Facebook.com and Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/cynicjrh

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Eric G.

Eric is the owner and editor-in-chief of the Camel Clutch Blog. Eric has worked in the pro wrestling industry since 1995 as a ring announcer in ECW and a commentator/host on television, PPV, and home video. Eric also hosted Pro Wrestling Radio on terrestrial radio from 1998-2009. Check out some of Eric's work on his IMDB bio and Wikipedia. Eric has an MBA from Temple University's Fox School of Business.

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