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Ravens Insider: Ranking the Ravens’ potential AFC divisional round opponents, from weakest to strongest


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The Ravens earned themselves an extra week to rest, heal and prepare for their playoff opener at M&T Bank Stadium. They’ll have to wait another week to learn the identity of their divisional round opponent.

That won’t stop us from speculating and debating which matchup — the unkillable Steelers, Joe Flacco’s Browns, the Dolphins with their explosive upside? — would be least welcome.

Now that we know the AFC field, Baltimore Sun reporters Brian Wacker and Childs Walker rank the teams, least scary to most, that the top-seeded Ravens could host in their playoff opener Jan. 20 or 21.

Brian Wacker

4. Houston Texans (10-7)

Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud has improved exponentially since these teams met in Week 1, and first-year coach DeMeco Ryans is a candidate for Coach of the Year after taking a team that went 3-13-1 last year and turning it into the AFC South champions. As inspiring as the turnaround has been, though, Houston’s offense can’t compete with the Ravens’ defense. And while the Texans’ defense is stout against the run, it’s also one of the worst in the league against the pass. Houston got to where it is in part because of its schedule, which ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of difficulty.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7)

The Steelers have won seven of their past eight against Baltimore, including both meetings this season, and beating a division rival three times in the same season actually happens more often than not. But Baltimore’s Week 5 debacle in Pittsburgh feels so long ago that it might as well have been in a different season, and forget about Saturday’s loss at M&T Bank Stadium, in which the Ravens sat several starters. Pittsburgh can run the ball against Baltimore, sure, but the Ravens’ defense has been a lot better this season.

2. Miami Dolphins (11-6)

Miami has too much talent to get annihilated the way it did the last time it came to Baltimore. They’d also likely have running back Raheem Mostert and receiver Jaylen Waddle back. There’s no denying the Dolphins have struggled on the road against good teams, but they have a ton of explosive playmakers and that makes them a dangerous opponent.

1. Cleveland Browns (11-6)

Imagine quarterback Joe Flacco striding back into M&T Bank Stadium with a chance to end the season of his former team and the quarterback who supplanted him. It’s Hollywood stuff, but could easily become reality. If it does, all the pressure will be on Lamar Jackson and the Ravens with the Browns having nothing to lose. Aside from that, Cleveland brings the best defense the Ravens would face and a tough, physical running game that can wear them down and set Flacco up to be the hero.

Childs Walker

4. Houston Texans

It doesn’t matter that the Ravens handled the Texans, 25-9, in the season opener. Stroud was a rookie playing in his first game. Now, he’s perhaps a top-10 quarterback who guided his team through a must-win playoff clincher on hostile turf against the Indianapolis Colts. The Texans shut down the run (though they gave up 227 rushing yards to the Colts) but have struggled against the better quarterbacks they’ve faced despite a productive pass rush. Their offense is not built to challenge the Ravens on the ground. The bottom line is that the Texans were scraping by mediocre opponents while the Ravens were smashing some of the league’s best teams. Houston is on the rise but not ready to upset the AFC’s No. 1 seed on the road.

Ravens running back Gus Edwards reaches out to stiff-arm Steelers cornerback Levi Wallace as defensive tackle Isaiahh Loudermilk chases during the second quarter Saturday. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)
Ravens running back Gus Edwards reaches out to stiff-arm Steelers cornerback Levi Wallace as defensive tackle Isaiahh Loudermilk chases during the second quarter Saturday. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

We can’t ignore the Steelers’ 7-1 record against the Ravens over the past four seasons. We can’t deny their mystical gift for keeping these rivalry games close and strange. But these teams have not been of comparable quality, no matter what the head-to-head record says. The Steelers have been outscored and outgained on the season. Yes, they have unlocked something on offense since they dumped coordinator Matt Canada and installed Mason Rudolph at quarterback. But they struggled to put away the JV Ravens in the regular-season finale, and it’s possible they will be without their best player, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who injured his knee in that victory. Whatever dark magic exists in those “Terrible Towels,” the Ravens would be favored by at least a touchdown if the Steelers make a return trip to Baltimore.

2. Miami Dolphins

It would be easy to look at that 56-19 score from New Year’s Eve and write the Dolphins off as no threat to the Ravens, but there’s too much talent on Miami’s roster for a return engagement to be quite so simple. The Dolphins would likely have Waddle and Mostert for the rematch, and the Ravens could not count on Tyreek Hill to bobble away another touchdown catch. There are real reasons to doubt the Dolphins given their poor road record against quality opponents and the void left by injured pass rushers Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb. The Ravens would go in enormously confident but not overconfident given their divisional round stumbles in 2019 and 2020.

1. Cleveland Browns

This is the matchup that has kept Ravens fans up at night since Flacco emerged as the Saint of Lake Erie. The narrative winds will whip if Flacco returns to Baltimore with a chance to end his former team’s dream season. He has played well, no question, but his lack of mobility and high interception rate would not serve him well against a Ravens defense that leads the league in sacks and takeaways. Of greater concern is Cleveland’s defense, which has held up as one of the league’s best despite a slew of injuries. The Browns picked off Jackson twice and sacked him three times in their Nov. 12 win in Baltimore. The Browns out-rushed the Ravens 178 yards to 106 that day. Cleveland’s upside can’t match what we saw from the Ravens in their wins over the 49ers and Dolphins, but there’s no reason to think Flacco, Myles Garrett and company would be dispatched with ease.

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