One of the most fascinating games of Super Wild-Card Weekend is a rematch of a playoff game we saw just last year. The AFC South champion Tennessee Titans get to host the Baltimore Ravens this time around, giving them an added advantage compared to last year, when the went on the road and steamrolled the No. 1 overall seed.
Can the Titans do it again, or will the Ravens get their revenge? Let's break down the matchup.
How to Watch
Time: 1:05 p.m. ET
Location: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tennessee)
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
When the Ravens have the ball
For much of the regular season, the Ravens struggled offensively. Prior to their Week 11 loss to the team the Titans team they will play again on Sunday, here's what we wrote about the backward step they had taken:
A look at the game film and a deeper dive into the numbers reveals a trio of culprits behind the team's offensive malaise: an offensive line that has taken a step backward; struggles connecting on the type of deep passes that provided a significant chunk of their big plays a year ago; and struggles against zone defenses...
The small step backward in run-blocking has led to more negative runs, fewer explosive runs, and fewer yards before contact per attempt. All of those things have meant worse down-and-distance situations for the NFL's run-heaviest team, which has led to lower third- and fourth-down conversion rates, which in turn have led to a dip in overall yardage and scoring.
A slight step backward in pass blocking has led to Jackson taking sacks more often than he did a year ago, but also being pressured considerably more often as well. Last season, Jackson was pressured on only 31.2 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media. This year, that figure has spiked to 37.7 percent. In turn, his scramble rate (how often he has scrambled as a percentage of pressures) has dipped from 28.5 percent to 24.1 percent, and his yards per scramble average has plummeted from 10.5 to 6.4 yards...
Last year, Jackson was one of the best deep-ball passers in the NFL. He completed 19 of 55 throws of at least 20 yards, per PFF and Tru Media, for 659 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. This year, he's just 8 of 29 for 252 yards, one score and one pick. He has missed Marquise Brown down the field so many times that I had to stop counting.
The Ravens lost that game against the Titans, as well as the following week's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which Jackson sat out after contracting the coronavirus. Since his return from the virus-induced absence, though, the offense has taken off.
Jackson has taken off both through the air (spiking his passer rating from 95.4 to 115.8) and on the ground (going from an average of 57.5 rushing yards per game to 86 per game). His connection with Marquise Brown has gotten back online, as the two have hooked up for 22 receptions for 253 yards and five scores over the past five weeks. And the return of Jackson's dynamism as a runner has allowed for the flourishing of rookie JK Dobbins and third-year man Gus Edwards, who have totally overtaken the veteran Mark Ingram in the backfield. Over the final five games of the season, Dobbins has rushed 62 times for 425 yards (6.9 yards per carry) and six touchdowns, while Edwards has carried 50 times for 337 yards (6.7 per carry) and two scores.
The last time these two teams played, the Ravens staked themselves to a 21-10 lead, only to falter on both offense and defense down the stretch. That's not something the team has struggled with since that point. It's also not necessarily something we should expect that the Titans will be able to force them into again, given the quality of their defense. Tennessee finished the season ranked 28th in yards allowed, 24th in points allowed, and 29th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, with the 30th-ranked unit against the pass. It's notable, though, that the Titans actually had a league-average unit (16th) against the run, indicating that they might be better set up to play against the Ravens than they are against other teams.
Still, Tennessee's almost total inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks should leave Jackson feeling unhurried in the pocket, while also giving him ample room to scramble down the field if he so chooses. The Titans struggled throughout the season to deal with opposing tight ends, which presents an additional challenge when the opposing team's best pass-catching option is Mark Andrews. The status of cornerback Adoree' Jackson is also in doubt for this contest, leaving Tennessee without a defensive back who can match Hollywood's speed.
Barring the Tennessee defensive front surprisingly dominating the matchup against Baltimore's offensive line, this game sets up well for the Ravens offense to continue rolling.
When the Titans have the ball
This side of the ball presents one of the most interesting tactical battles of the weekend. On one side you've got the Titans, who finished this season second in yards, fourth in scoring, and fourth in DVOA, while also ranking as one of only two teams with a top-five rushing and passing attack. On the other you have the Ravens, who checked in seventh in yards allowed, second in points allowed, and finished ninth in defensive DVOA despite numerous injury and COVID-related absences on that side of the ball throughout the year.
The two teams are also well-matched personnel-wise, as the Titans love to use heavy formations to get the defense in heavy personnel and create one-on-one matchups for their athletic wide receivers, while the Ravens have one of the NFL's best defensive lines and one of its best secondaries.
There are all kinds of intriguing battles up front, where the interior of the Tennessee offensive line will have to deal with Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, and Derek Wolfe, while the tackles do battle with Matt Judon, Pernell McPhee, and Yannick Ngakoue. On the perimeter, A.J. Brown and Corey Davis will be tasked with getting open against the likes of Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Jimmy Smith. Even the battle between Titans tight ends Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser, and the Ravens' linebackers and safeties carries intrigue.
As you're likely well aware, Derrick Henry in on yet another rampage, just as he was around this time last year. He's coming off an absurd 34-carry, 250-yard, two-touchdown trampling of the Houston Texans, which was the capper to his 196-carry, 1,184-yard, nine-touchdown second half of the season. Just when it seemed like he couldn't get more impossible to tackle than he was last year, well, he did this. Henry broke a league-high 75 tackles on running plays this season, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, and averaged 3.94 yards after contact per attempt. The Titans do a marvelous job designing cutbacks and wind-backs into their running plays so opponents have to try to bring Henry down from the side instead of straight on, a task at which they typically fail with laughable results.
The Ravens' run defense ranked just 12th in DVOA this season, a bit worse than you might usually expect from this group. But it was far better with Campbell and Williams on the field, and they'll be out there on Sunday. It'll be up to them and Wolfe to make sure Henry doesn't get a chance to break into the second level, where even Baltimore's excellent secondary doesn't really stand a chance of keeping hold of the Big Dog.
Devote too much attention to Henry, though, and Tannehill will carve you up. He finished the season ranked third in EPA per play on play-action throws, per PFF and Tru Media, spurred on by a league-high 44 completions gaining at least 14 yards on those plays. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith routinely puts Tannehill in position to succeed with a heavy use of run fakes, bootlegs, crossing patterns, and targeted deep shots, and just when you think you've got them figured out, they'll swerve in another direction. It's a remarkably tough offense to get a hold of, as the Ravens learned last year.
In the end, this feels like one of those games that comes down to which offense has the ball last.
Prediction: Ravens 33, Titans 31