Led by a veteran defense, the Baltimore Ravens are in the playoffs for a franchise-record third straight year, undeterred by the fact that their path to the Super Bowl will again come on the road.
The Kansas City Chiefs might not have the experience to match the Ravens, but their talented offense has them feeling they are not quite the underdog many see them as heading into Sunday’s AFC wild-card showdown at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Ravens (12-4) are again beginning on the road after losing the AFC North tiebreaker to Pittsburgh to earn the fifth seed. They’ve played their last five postseason games away from home, going 3-2. Baltimore won at New England last season before losing at Indianapolis.
“Our track record says we’ll play anybody at any time, anywhere,” linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) said. “Anytime you can pack up a great defense like that and take it on the road, you have a chance to win.”
Baltimore closed the regular season with four straight wins, giving up 17 points in the final two games. Behind Lewis, who finished fifth in the league with 139 total tackles - his most since 2004 - the Ravens ranked third in the NFL in points allowed with 270 and were fifth against the rush, giving up 93.9 yards per game.
The secondary expects to have safety Ed Reed(notes) back after he left a 13-7 win over Cincinnati last week with injured ribs. Reed had two interceptions before departing in the fourth quarter, but coach John Harbaugh said the 32-year-old was “ordered” to stay on the sideline and could have finished if necessary.
Reed missed six games following offseason hip surgery but had a league-high eight interceptions.
It’s been a less successful season for Baltimore’s offense as players have expressed frustration with the play calling. The running game, which ranked fifth in the NFL last season, dropped to 14th with 114.4 yards per game.
The Ravens averaged 20.7 points over the last six games after scoring 28.7 over the previous six. The 199 yards of offense against the Bengals were a season low.
“There are some things you want to do better,” Harbaugh said. “The good news is … I really think we are really close. I watch our offense every single day in practice, and I know how good we are - can be - and how close we are to being really good.”
The Ravens are looking for more production from third-year quarterback Joe Flacco(notes), who failed to pass for more than 200 yards in the last three games. However, his offensive line has failed to protect him all year, giving up 40 sacks.
Baltimore’s offense fell flat in its last playoff game - a 20-3 defeat to the Colts - and will likely need to be better to compete against the AFC West champion Chiefs (10-6).
Kansas City’s two key offensive pieces are making their playoff debuts. Jamaal Charles(notes) was second in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,467, averaging an impressive 6.4 per carry, while Matt Cassel(notes) is hoping to put a shaky regular-season finale behind him.
The Chiefs haven’t been to the playoffs since the 2006 season and are looking to end a six-game postseason skid dating to a 28-20 road win over the Houston Oilers on Jan. 16, 1994.
Behind its top-ranked run game, Kansas City had one of the league’s most productive offenses, averaging 349.7 yards while finishing with more than 400 seven times. In contrast, Baltimore had two games in which it totaled more than 400 yards.
However, the Chiefs struggled at the end of the season. They won three of five but scored 10 or fewer points three times and finished with a 31-10 loss to Oakland last weekend.
Cassel completed 33.3 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions, finishing with a passer rating of 19.1. However, it’s been a good season for the third-year starter as he had 27 touchdowns to seven picks.
Dwayne Bowe(notes), Kansas City’s leading receiver with 1,162 yards and an NFL-best 15 touchdowns, returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday with an illness. Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters(notes) was also back at practice Friday after missing two days with an undisclosed illness.
Cassel has the good fortune of being complimented by a talented rushing corps. The Chiefs also received plenty of production from Thomas Jones(notes), who ran for 896 yards and six touchdowns. Charles and Jones will be challenged by Baltimore’s run defense, which allowed three players to rush for more than 80 yards.