1. Strength vs. strength
In a game that will have many layers to it, there's no debating the headline battle in this Divisional Playoff. It's Buffalo's second-ranked scoring offense and Baltimore's second-ranked scoring defense.
The Bills put up their first 500-point season in team history with 501 points scored, while the Ravens allowed fewer than 19 points per game to their opponents.
Interestingly, the success of each team is rooted in each team's success rate on third down. Buffalo led the league when it came to moving the sticks, converting at a rate of almost 50 percent on third down (49.7%), while Baltimore's defense allowed a conversion rate of just 34 percent, second-best in the league.
Josh Allen, who reviewed his performance against the Ravens last year in Week 14, was critical a couple of what he called his "boneheaded plays." The Bills QB is looking to avoid negative plays against a defense of this caliber.
"This is a team where if they get momentum on their side they're scary," he said. "Obviously they've got quite a few big name players over there and they play their scheme extremely well. It's one of those games where you've got to capitalize on your opportunities to score. And you've got to hold onto the football and not make any mistakes and give them any easy ones."
The Bills third-ranked passing game will match its talent with the Ravens sixth-ranked pass defense.
"They've got guys on the perimeter that can cover at a high level," said head coach Sean McDermott. "They've invested a lot of capital in that position. I thought those guys did a really good job against us last year and it'll be a big challenge for us this year."
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is concerned with defending the off-script plays that Allen routinely makes when he leaves the pocket.
"It's something that we work on (defensively) all the time, in terms of extending the coverage, extending the pass rush," said Harbaugh. "There's an effort of trying to keep him in there, but also, when he gets out, it's an effort rush and effort coverage. We have techniques for it that we teach our guys. We try to study their scramble patterns and make sure we understand them, so we can cover the guys when he gets out. Then it's just a matter of playing really hard and running. Hopefully, we'll be able to do a good job of that."
One statistic to note. Josh Allen posted a 7-1 record this season against top 10 scoring defenses (LAR, PIT, MIA (2), NE (2), KC, IND).
2. History says this QB has the advantage based on draft position
While much has been made of the fact that this weekend's AFC Playoff slate includes three quarterbacks from the 2018 draft class, Saturday's game featuring Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson marks the 12th time in which opposing quarterbacks from the same draft class face off in the postseason.
The good news for Allen and the Bills is the quarterback drafted earlier is 9-2 in the previous 11 matchups.
Allen was the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft. Jackson was the 32nd pick.
Other history that further helps the cause of Allen and the Bills are the results when a top three passing offense squares off against a top three rushing offense in the postseason.
There have been 13 such meetings in the playoffs since 2000.
Buffalo has the third-best passing offense in football, while the Ravens have the top ranked rushing attack.
In those 13 previous postseason meetings the passing offense has emerged from those matchups victorious a total of nine times (9-4).
3. Run and done
Baltimore's run game made history this season. They became the only NFL franchise to rush for 3,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. The Ravens 3,071 rushing yards this year is the third-most in a season in league history behind the 1978 New England Patriots (3,165) and their own squad in 2019 (3,296).
Part of the reason is no one runs it more often than the Ravens do. They lead the league with a run percentage of 56 percent.
For the second straight season the Ravens had three players rush for more than 700 yards. Lamar Jackson (1,005), JK Dobbins (805) and Gus Edwards (723) have been the primary ball carriers this season.
Since Week 11 of the 2019 season, the Ravens have rushed for at least 200 yards a league-high 20 times. The second-best NFL club in games with 200-yard rushing outputs over that span is Tennessee, but they've done it half the number of times (10)
"I just try to keep the ball rolling, keep the chains moving," said Lamar Jackson of when he runs out of the pocket. "We really don't want to get in second-and-long or third-and-long, stuff like that. If I see a lane and no one is open, I'm going to try to take advantage of it and get the most yards I can, hopefully, score. But I'm just trying to keep the chains moving. I'm trying to keep the opposing offense off the field, and just keep us on the field as much as I can and score points."
Dobbins has been a fantastic complement to Jackson's rushing exploits. He's scored nine of his 10 touchdowns this season in his last seven games and brings an explosive element to the running back position. The seven-game scoring streak is the second longest by a rookie in NFL history (Maurice Jones-Drew, 8 games, 2006).
In their last six games, the Ravens have run for 1,573 yards, the most by a team in six games since 1950. The rushing total is also more than six NFL clubs ran for in the 2020 regular season.
Since Week 12 Buffalo's run defense had shaved 40 yards off their rushing yards allowed average, but gave up 163 rushing yards to the Colts last week. They finished the regular season ranked 17th against the run.
4. TJ Yeldon will fill Zack Moss void
Bills head coach Sean McDermott confirmed on Thursday that with rookie RB Zack Moss out this week with an ankle injury suffered in the Wild Card game, that TJ Yeldon will replace him in the lineup.
"TJ will be the one that's brought up in Zack's spot," McDermott said. "We do have a lot of confidence in Antonio and we really were impressed by what we saw that game against Miami."
McDermott is referring to practice squad running back Antonio Williams. The undrafted rookie "popped" in his NFL debut against Miami in Week 17 rumbling for 63 yards on 12 carries (5.3 avg) and two touchdowns.
The only reason Williams was dressed was because Yeldon was on the reserve/COVID list at the time.
Yeldon has appeared in three games for the Bills this season. His last game action came in Week 5 against the Titans, when he had seven carries for 52 yards and caught a touchdown pass.
McDermott also left open the possibility that Williams could be a practice squad call up for the game Saturday night.
5. Marquise Brown emerging
Though known as a run-heavy offense, in looking to make up for what was lost with the dissolution of their three tight end package last season, the Ravens have carved out a larger role for WR Marquise "Hollywood" Brown over the final few weeks of the season.
Baltimore traded TE Hayden Hurst to Atlanta and lost Nick Boyle to a season-ending injury. So the Ravens passing game had to find another complementary weapon to TE Mark Andrews. Enter Brown, who tied Andrews for the team lead in receptions this season with 58.
In the postseason Brown has been even more productive with two 100-yard receiving days in his two career playoff games, including last week's 109-yard performance in the Wild Card win at Tennessee.
"He showed up big for us last year in the playoff game we had – and low and behold, he does it again the other day," said Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. "He's been working hard. I really think he's gotten better and better. He had a few drops there, but we work through that. Really and truly, from the last five [or] six weeks, he's really improved. We see it in practice. I think his timing with Lamar [Jackson] – has improved. So, we need him. We need him to show up. He's a big part of what we want to do."
Brown had a 129-yard receiving day in the Divisional Playoff game for the Ravens last season.
6. Blitz happy
In addition to being a physical defense that forces the ball out, Baltimore is also the highest-blitz rate unit in the league. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has his group blitz at a rate of 45.5 percent. Even their blitz rate on first down (39.7%) ranks third-highest in the NFL.
And though they ranked middle of the pack (15th) in sack percentage this season, they did have the second-most quarterback hits with 116 this season.
"They do a great job," said head coach Sean McDermott. "They came in here last year and did a great job against us defensively. Wink is creative with the blitzes on all downs. They have corners who can cover and inside guys who can rush that are difference makers."
In assessing Baltimore's approach against mobile quarterbacks like Allen, who are also prolific passers, the Ravens faced Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Houston's Deshaun Watson.
The Ravens blitzed Mahomes at a rate of 47.6 percent, slightly higher than their season average. Mahomes was 31-42 passing for 385 yards with four touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown in a 34-20 victory over the Ravens.
Watson was blitzed at a rate of 46.3 percent, again slightly above the Ravens season average. Watson was 25-36 passing for 275 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Baltimore won that game handily 33-16.
This season Josh Allen has performed admirably against the blitz. His combined stats in the six games in which he was blitzed on half of his dropbacks or more he completed 66 percent of his passes, had a passing yardage average of 283 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in those games. He was sacked a total of 10 times in the six games. His collective passer rating was 104.5.
Despite knowing Allen's success against the blitz this season, Martindale didn't back off on their intent to bring the heat.
"He knows that there is going to be pressure, that's for sure," Martindale said of Allen this week. "That's who we are. That's what we've done."
7. Beasley's health trending up
The Bills slot receiver earned second team All-Pro honors this season and has been a critical reason why Buffalo led the NFL in third down conversion rate. Though he was hobbled last week with his knee injury, Beasley still contributed a team-leading seven receptions for 57 yards.
The good news is the veteran receiver feels his knee injury is in better shape heading into the Divisional Playoff with Baltimore.
"I'll say this I feel a lot better at this point this week than I did last week," said Beasley on Tuesday this week. "In my mind, I don't think I'll be as limited as I was last week. So that's all I care about. I just want to be better than I was the week before and just keep improving. As far as limitations go, I don't know what it's going to be like. I just know it's going to be better than it was the week before."
That could mean a bigger challenge for Marlon Humphrey than perhaps he anticipated. The physical corner is expected to try to muscle Beasley around. Buffalo's slot receiver had four receptions for 29 yards and a touchdown in their Week 14 matchup last season.
8. Fumble makers
The Baltimore Ravens finished tied with the Bills in turnover margin this season at plus-four, as they tied for 10th best in the league. But when it comes to stripping opposing ball carriers, no other team is more effective than the Ravens.
Baltimore forced a league-leading 25 fumbles in 2020. That's just one shy of their franchise record of 26 set by their 2000 Super Bowl champion team.
"It's one of the best defenses, if not the best defense in the National Football League both player-wise and scheme-wise," said Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. "The way they take the ball away in terms of creating fumbles and getting their hands on it. The players that they have and the scheme that they utilize, it's a Baltimore Raven defense, you know? They're really good."
CB Marlon Humphrey led the league and the Ravens with eight forced fumbles, but interestingly did not recover a single one over the course of the season.
In fact, of the 25 forced fumbles by the Ravens in the regular season they recovered fewer than half of them. According to league statistics Baltimore had 12 fumble recoveries, just one more than Buffalo this season (11).