We’ve made it to wild-card weekend. After an unprecedented NFL season, amid an ongoing global pandemic, teams will now go head-to-head under the league’s new playoff format. Instead of the usual four games, there will be six wild-card matchups spread out across Saturday and Sunday.
It’s quite unfortunate for teams like the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints, who would have previously enjoyed a bye; but it gives others, including the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears, a chance to extend their seasons. There are six wild-card teams this season: the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Colts fill out the AFC while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, and Bears complete the NFC’s playoff picture.
Each of these teams has had varying levels of success and its own set of challenges. While there are veteran quarterbacks in the mix and surging offenses, there are only three teams that pose a real threat to the higher seeds—Baltimore, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay—but there’s only one team that enters wild-card weekend as the most dangerous: the Ravens. The reason why is pretty obvious, but before we get there, here’s why the other two contending teams aren’t as formidable as they once seemed:
The Buccaneers are expected to win easily against the Washington Football Team; it doesn’t help their case for the most dangerous wild-card team, despite having Tom Brady, since Washington’s presence in the postseason is a formality rather than a testament to a successful season. Tampa Bay’s easy road through this weekend might not expose the struggles this team has faced throughout the regular season. The marriage between Brady and head coach Bruce Arians hasn’t worked out as well and as quickly as many thought, and the Buccaneers’ defense has been equally inconsistent. No team previously wanted to face the New England Patriots version of Brady in the playoffs, but the success of Brady’s past hasn’t followed him to Tampa Bay yet.
Cleveland now has at least eight players out this weekend, seven of whom will miss time as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak; included in this count is defensive end Olivier Vernon, who will miss the remainder of the season with a ruptured Achilles. Head coach Kevin Stefanski will also be out for wild-card weekend. While this team’s recent success has been exciting to watch—and experience for a fan base that is conditioned for disappointment—its growing list of coronavirus-related absences is a great concern.
This leaves the Ravens, and, more notably, quarterback Lamar Jackson as the wild-card team to beat. Jackson, who was widely criticized early in the season for not resembling the 2019 MVP passer we enjoyed, has hit his stride at the perfect time. We’re seeing the electric quarterback that took over the league last season. Now, it just needs to translate into the postseason, which has been the only thing that’s eluded Jackson in his short career. In his only season as a full-time starter, Baltimore couldn’t get past the divisional round—Jackson fell to 0-2 in the playoffs. Things might be entirely different this year, and it’s part of what makes Jackson and the Ravens’ offense so difficult to defend.
“The unique aspect of Jackson’s game, and what makes it so hard to defend, is the way offensive coordinator Greg Roman has tailored the Ravens’ offense toward Jackson’s one-of-a-kind skill set. Look back to the Ravens’ loss to Tennessee in the 2019 playoffs, and Jackson’s effectiveness ultimately was limited simply due to scheme. Roman often played heavy in 13 personnel (three tight ends), which in turn, clogged lanes for Jackson on designed runs. Linebackers and safeties for Tennessee were able to press the box and fill each gap before Jackson got up to speed.
“Fast forward a year and the Ravens’ offense is almost completely unrecognizable from that 2019 defeat. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Baltimore has used 11 personnel (1 RB/1 TE) on 48% of their plays, running the ball a league-high 43% of the time. And why wouldn’t you? Jackson has the ability to take it the distance on any snap via his legs, and having him drop back to target a speedy Marquise Brown when safeties begin to creep up or when the sure-handed Mark Andrews is mismatched on a corner aren’t bad options, either. It’s a win-win for Baltimore and an impossible task for the defense.”
This is a week-to-week league, and everything is exacerbated in the playoffs. No one can predict how effective any one player or any one team will be after kickoff. But based on opponents, overall success, and the health plus momentum each of these wild-card teams have entering the postseason, Baltimore has the best chance to make the most noise.