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Mike Preston: AFC North rivals are Ravens’ biggest obstacles on path to Super Bowl

BALTIMORE — The Ravens have the best team in the NFL, the first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but getting to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas will not be easy.

They have the NFL’s hottest quarterback in Lamar Jackson and the league’s No. 1 running game, averaging 159.7 yards per game. They are the most complete and balanced team, ranked No. 4 in both total offense and defense, and have dominated top teams such as the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions.

There are some matchups, though, that could cause problems, especially if the Ravens have to play AFC North rivals.

Because of the first-round bye, the Ravens have virtually three weeks to rest players such as receiver Zay Flowers, safety Kyle Hamilton, right guard Kevin Zeitler, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and linebacker Patrick Queen. The long layoff will create some rust, but that can disappear quickly. The Ravens were in a similar situation in 2019 with the No. 1 seed, and they lost in the divisional round to the Tennessee Titans, 28-12.

“No, that’s not in my mind this season. Like I said, my mindset was a lot different [in 2019],” Jackson said Wednesday. “Just knowing how the NFL is — we said this a few weeks ago — ‘It’s any given Sunday, it’s any whatever day you have to play on.’

“Hopefully, we just try to be on the right side of any given day.”

That’s why the journey to the Super Bowl won’t be easy. Most of the teams that earn a playoff appearance are good, but two of the most dangerous are the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. Why? Because the AFC North is a physical division and both teams understand what is needed to beat the Ravens in Baltimore.

Divisional games are always physical and the grind can carry over to the next week. Plus, the Browns are now led by former Ravens quarterback and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Joe Flacco, who has led Cleveland to four straight victories and its second playoff berth since 2002.

Flacco was replaced by Jackson during the latter’s rookie season in 2018 and the Ravens went 6-1 down the stretch before losing to the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round. That matchup would create some great storylines and provide both teams with more motivation. Cleveland has the No. 11 ranked offense and No. 1 defense.

That’s almost as balanced as the Ravens.

Flacco, 38, is a great story and was the missing ingredient for the Browns, who have started four quarterbacks this season. He has completed 123 of 204 passes for 1,616 yards and 13 touchdowns, and some of those throws have been incredible. But Flacco just chucks it up, and while that can work in the regular season, it won’t against a more disciplined team like the Ravens.

Pittsburgh, another divisional foe, also causes concern. The Steelers have won six of the past seven games against the Ravens, including a 17-10 victory at home Oct. 8.

Like Cleveland, Pittsburgh has a new quarterback in Mason Rudolph, who has completed 35 of 51 passes for 564 yards and two touchdowns in back-to-back wins. Rudolph has put the vertical passing game back in the offense, and the Steelers match up well against the Ravens because they have two strong running backs in Najee Harris (801 rushing yards) and Jaylen Warren (751).

Pittsburgh’s No. 22 ranked defense isn’t great, but the Steelers have enough playmakers in outside linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. However, to get into the playoffs, Pittsburgh has to beat the Ravens on Saturday and then count on one of the following: Tennessee win or tie against the Jacksonville Jaguars; Miami win over the Buffalo Bills; or a tie between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. (The Steelers can also earn a playoff spot with a loss if the Denver Broncos beat the Las Vegas Raiders, the Titans beat the Jaguars and the Texans and Colts don’t tie.)

The situation seems dire, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has a way of resurrecting his teams.

“Any time you can send somebody home, that’s one reason why you play the game,” Queen said Wednesday. “Like I said, at the end of the day, it’s a rivalry game, so you have to treat that game like you would treat any other rivalry game. With those guys, like I said, they come out [and] try to punch you in the mouth.

“That’s just the type of game I like, so when you have a team like that, it’s a fun football game. It’s a great football game against two teams who have a ton of respect for each other, but still want to get down and ground them.”

Now, imagine if it were playoff time. That’s the AFC North. Familiarity has its pros and cons on both sides.

Both Kansas City and Buffalo are concerns, but neither is playing up to the level they’ve shown in recent years. The Chiefs still have Patrick Mahomes, the best quarterback in the NFL, but his receivers can’t catch, having dropped 42 passes entering last week’s 25-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Mahomes is either lost or has given up throwing downfield, and he has doesn’t have a strong running game to help him. Defensively, the Chiefs can win against most teams but are No. 17 against the run, which wouldn’t fare well against the Ravens.

There is speculation that the Washington Commanders will fire coach Ron Rivera shortly after the regular season ends Sunday and that his offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, could return to the Chiefs just before the playoffs begin. Bieniemy spent 10 seasons as both Kansas City’s running backs coach and the offensive coordinator before moving to Washington at the end of last season.

That sounds more like wishful thinking than reality, but maybe the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs have a hidden switch they can turn on in the postseason.

If they get in, the Bills might approach the postseason with a chip on their shoulders. Weeks ago, it looked as if they wouldn’t make the playoffs, but they could end up winning the AFC East title.

With Buffalo, you never know which team will show up because quarterback Josh Allen is so inconsistent. One game he might throw five touchdown passes, and the next he might throw five interceptions. When he is on, he can carry a team.

The Bills, though, had the same problem as the Ravens did earlier this season: They turn the ball over too much. Allen has completed 355 of 541 passes for 3,947 yards with 27 touchdowns, but he has also thrown 16 interceptions. The Bills have lost nine of 16 fumbles.

Regardless, they feel “disrespected,” a big word among the younger generation. Several weeks ago, the Ravens said the same thing before they dismantled the 49ers, 33-19.

The Ravens, though, have played with that type of attitude most of the season. They struggled early with ball security but have rebounded with an offense that is still evolving and a defense that has carried them.

Now, they head into the postseason as favorites to win it all, but coach John Harbaugh knows that isn’t good enough.

On any given day, as Jackson says, the Ravens need to be on the right side of that day.

The journey continues.