Baltimore and the AFC North paired with the AFC South, with the Jaguars and Titans both picking in the Top 3 of the draft and the Texans fielding their 4th string quarterback Case Keenum, and the NFC South, where the division leader couldn't break .500 during the regular season.
Not the best competition, but here the Ravens are in the Divisional Round.
The two easier schedules? Both in 2008.
The NFC South had the fortune to play both the NFC North (with the 0-16 Lions) and the AFC West. They barely edged out the 2014 AFC North for ease of scheduling.
The easiest schedule by far belongs to the 2008 AFC East, who played the AFC West and NFC West. Where the Patriots played without Tom Brady. Where they could have rained fire on the league, playing the 1st and 3rd worst divisions all time.
Oh, what could have been. The West divisions that just one team above .500 on the year: the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals.
When looking at these teams with such easy schedules, there's a clear link to their playoff performances. The 2014 AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs. The 2008 AFC East saw an 11-5 team with a back-up quarterback come in second place. The 2008 NFC South placed two teams in the playoffs, both going One-and-Done against the 9-7 Cardinals.
Of course, the Ravens were lucky enough to play the Steelers. Someone had to win that game to break that streak. But let's see if the Ravens can prove that their season was more than scheduling luck.
I watched the Ravens lose to 4th string QB Case Keenum and the Texans, barely beat 3rd string QB Connor Shaw and the Browns, and then have a great game against Ben Roethlisberger. Let's see what the tape revealed.
When the Ravens run the ball
Baltimore relies on their rushing attack to open up big play down the field and their offense has struggled once the offensive line was unable to open up rushing lanes. Left guard Kelechi Osemele is so good. He's quick, big, and so dangerous at the second level. Right guard Marshall Yanda is great too, but Osemele just draws so much attention.
The Ravens hope that Justin Forsett can be enough of a nuisance in the backfield that the linebackers will get sucked in to open pockets up the middle for the tight ends. The best way to do that is to keep him bottled in the backfield. The Steelers did a poor job as their defensive linemen kept getting turned sideways and out of the rushing lanes.
The Patriots defensive line need to eat space for the linebackers and safety Patrick Chung to attack. The Patriots might look to playing a 3-4 front in order to get as much beef on the field as possible, but Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga, and Chris Jones will definitely be rotating throughout the game.
Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones will have a good time trying to bull rush the Ravens offensive tackles to contain Forsett inside, and must ensure gap integrity to prevent the running back from getting to the second level. Forsett is really good at picking up chunk yardage, so he can't be allowed into the open.
Linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins need to be aware of the guards in the second level at all time; it's a clash between four All Pro caliber players. This will likely determine how the Patriots fare defending the rush and dictating the tempo of the game.
When the Ravens pass the ball
There are three main receivers in the Ravens offense. There's Steve Smith, who is still fantastic, on all levels of the field. There's Torrey Smith, who is a boom/bust type of speed receiver, who has a skill set that gives the Patriots some troubles. And then there's tight end Owen Daniels who uses his great athleticism to generate separation in the middle of the field to move the chains.
That's pretty much it. There's no slot receiver of note. Their third, fourth, and fifth wide receivers, former Patriot 6'2 Kamar Aiken, 6'5 Marlon Brown, are big and average a combined 6.4 targets per game, for 4.8 receptions and 52.6 yards. Justin Forsett will a couple targets as a checkdown, too.
But if the Patriots can limit the Ravens top three targets and force them to try and win with Brown and Aiken, New England should be thrilled.
To attack the Ravens, A-Gap pressure is important. Quarterback Joe Flacco is mobile enough to escape pressure, but inside pressure causes him to buckle and attempt off-balance throws. The current state of the Ravens tackles (both injured) means that using Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to pinch Flacco inside should be a pretty solid strategy. This will allow Jamie Collins or Dont'a Hightower to make a big play with an inside rush.
It must be noted that Flacco instinctively throws at the vacancy left by blitzing linebackers and it's usually to his tight ends. It's how he reacts and the Patriots can take advantage by feigning a rush and dropping into his passing lanes when he attempts to throw.
The tight ends are crucial for the Ravens passing attack. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak loves using his tight ends to clear passing lanes and Owen Daniels is very good. Baltimore will have him run angle routes away from the primary target to draw underneath coverage out of the passing lane. Linebackers will need to maintain zone integrity to force Flacco to hold onto the ball slightly longer than he would like.
On the other hand, quick passes to tight ends up the seam are their bread and butter; Jamie Collins needs to be ready. No free releases ever.
Baltimore loves the comeback route to Steve Smith Sr. at the sticks. The savvy veteran will attack the coverage cushion and cut right back before the defender can react. It's a first down every time.
Flacco trusts his arm and will force a lot of throws, so Patriots defenders need to stay on top of the route to break on the ball. As soon as a receiver breaks even on either side of the defender, Flacco is going to let it rip.
The best match-ups involve placing Darrelle Revis on Steve Smith, Brandon Browner on Owen Daniels, and Kyle Arrington on Torrey Smith with Devin McCourty over the top. Revis is the only defensive back sudden enough to keep with Smith Sr. and has the ability to attack comeback routes. Browner would move to cover Aiken or Brown when they're on the field, but he should mainly focus on Daniels. Arrington has proven that he is capable of covering these speedy receivers like T.Y. Hilton and Mike Wallace, so Torrey Smith fits into that profile- and it'd be better than Logan Ryan or Malcolm Butler.
When the Patriots run the ball
Baltimore features a top 5 run defense, so yards up the middle won't come easy. The Ravens play with 4i-tech 3-4 defensive end fronts, which means that their defensive ends align inside the offensive tackles. Rex and the Jets do this too, and it causes a lot of issues for New England. It isolates the tackles from the guards, and puts everyone on an island. Either the guards need to step up (which is a clear point of weakness for New England), or the Patriots will need to have a fullback in to block at all times.
Alternatively, they can copy the Browns and just run to the outside.
The Ravens defensive ends maintain quality leverage against the offensive tackles against the run to prevent lanes from developing. At times, running backs just need to just lower their shoulder and hit the line. No clear lanes force running backs to dance and Ravens linebackers are great at cleaning up.
Swing passes, stretch zones, anything to get the running backs outside and against a defensive back. Cutback lanes are usually open. But running into the teeth of the defense might not be the most successful choice.
This looks like a six offensive linemen kind of game, not just to provide extra protection, but also to allow the Patriots to have more beef running the ball.
When the Patriots pass the ball
The Ravens cornerback position is completely decimated. Lardarius Webb is the only corner they'd like to have on the field. They have five cornerbacks on the injured reserve, which means that the Ravens are particularly vulnerable to the outside.
Their safety position, however, is perfectly fine with Will Hill and Matt Elam. They complement each other in a similar way as Pat Chung and Devin McCourty, but will less athleticism in exchange for far more power.
Due to the quality in the secondary, the Patriots might be better off just playing an extra blocker to help defend against the Ravens front seven. The Ravens blitz their linebackers as often as the Patriots send Hightower and Collins, so communication on the offensive line will be crucial. Additionally, it's likely that the Patriots receivers can get open against the Ravens secondary if given enough time.
The Texans should success on mid-level crossers after sucking the linebackers in on the playaction. The trick is to get behind the linebackers, not in front of them on a low crosser as they're great at hitting receivers and stopping the quick gain.
Again, attacking the outside is the best option, where mid level Out routes have been successful. Brandon LaFell is extremely important this game. Brian Tyms worked on developing this skill against Buffalo in Week 17.
The Ravens defense loves to be aggressive while rushing the passer. They're willing to risk penalty flag to jump the snap. Tom Brady and the line need to mix snap cadences to force a jump and to keep the Ravens from keying in on their play calls. OLB Pernell McPhee is really good and quick off the snap. There are a lot of good players on the Ravens defensive front seven.
All three teams we watched decided to attack the Ravens outside the hashes. It's very important to spread out the Ravens defense and to soften potential rushing lanes.
Jacoby Jones is a dangerous returner. Special teams needs to be on their A-game.
Steelers gained 40+ yards on 50% of their drives. The Patriots should be able to do better.
The Ravens benefit from the third most penalty yards this season; they have benefit the most from defensive pass interference calls in the whole league. This is why Browner on Smith might not make sense.