WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Look for Baltimore to attempt to replicate the formula that worked so well in last year's playoff upset of the Patriots. The Ravens racked up 234 rushing yards in that contest, with primary ball-carrier Ray Rice (1220 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 6 total TD) amassing 155 yards and two touchdowns on 22 attempts, and held the football nearly 32 1/2 minutes in a successful attempt to keep Brady and his mates off the field. Baltimore showed signs of being a dominant smash-mouth team late this season, with Rice running for 153 yards and a score in a critical Week 15 win over New Orleans and the offense managing 161 yards on the ground against the Browns the following Sunday, but the unit has also had its struggles as of late. The Ravens had a season-low 199 total yards and converted a poor 2-of-11 third-down chances last week, while Flacco (3622 passing yards, 25 TD, 10 INT) was sacked four times. Protecting the quarterback has been a sore spot at times for Baltimore, but if Flacco does get adequate time to survey the field, the former first-round pick has a trio of established weapons in veteran wide receivers Anquan Boldin (64 receptions, 7 TD) and Derrick Mason (61 receptions, 7 TD) and tight end Todd Heap (40 receptions, 5 TD). Rice is a very dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield as well, finishing third among NFL backs in both receptions and receiving yards (556) during the regular season.
The Chiefs ranked a respectable 14th in rushing defense (110.3 ypg) this year but can be vulnerable in that area, as the Raiders showed by running for 209 yards in last Sunday's victory. Kansas City has surrendered 160 yards or more on the ground in three of its last five games, meaning standout inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (121 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and a solid three-man front anchored by ends Glenn Dorsey (69 tackles, 2 sacks) and Shaun Smith (56 tackles, 1 sack) will have to win its individual battles and prevent the Ravens from dictating the pace. The Chiefs have usually held their own against opposing aerial attacks, with a young and talented secondary headlined by cornerback Brandon Flowers (65 tackles, 2 INT, 14 PD) and the rookie safety tandem of Eric Berry (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INT) and Kendrick Lewis (30 tackles, 3 INT) yielding a 54.9 completion rate on the season, the third-lowest in the league. It helps that the backfield has one of the game's premier pass rushers on its side in outside linebacker Tamba Hali (52 tackles, 14.5 sacks), who ended atop the AFC in sacks after notching 2 1/2 in the finale with the Raiders.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
It's no secret as to what Kansas City wants to do offensively. The Chiefs had the most rushing yards (164.2 ypg) and attempts (556) during the regular season and boasts a terrific two-back combo in Jamaal Charles (1467 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 8 total TD) and veteran Thomas Jones (896 rushing yards, 6 TD, 14 receptions). The lightning-quick Charles led the NFL in yards per carry (6.4) and is a true home-run hitter as both a runner and receiver, while the physical Jones is used to soften defenses between the tackles. The duo has also made life easier for Cassel (3116 rushing yards, 27 TD, 7 INT), who's done a very good job overseeing an offense that committed the second-fewest turnovers (14) in the league this year. While Kansas City has employed a mostly conservative game plan under coordinator and ex-Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, the team will take some shots down the field with big-play receiver Dwayne Bowe (72 receptions, 1162 yards), the NFL's leader with 15 touchdown receptions and who averaged better than 16 yards per grab in a career-best performance. He and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters each missed some practice time this week with an illness, but both are fully expected to be available for Sunday's game.
Keeping the Chiefs' potent ground game under wraps will be the top priority for Baltimore, as Kansas City was held to 115 rushing yards or less in five of its six losses. Stopping the run is also one of the Ravens' strengths, with their star-studded defense ranking fifth in that category (93.9 ypg) for the year and limiting their past six foes under that above-mentioned 115-yard barrier. A fierce front seven contains three Pro Bowl honorees in iconic inside linebacker Ray Lewis (139 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), lineman Haloti Ngata (63 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (68 tackles, 11 sacks), an elite edge rusher with the capability of taking over a game. The secondary also sports a true difference-maker in free safety Ed Reed (37 tackles, 16 PD), an exceptional ball-hawk who led the NFL with eight interceptions in spite of missing the season's first six weeks while recovering from hip surgery. The perennial All-Pro, who came up with a pair of picks in each of Baltimore's final two games, is dealing with sore ribs but isn't in danger of missing Sunday's tilt. Cornerback Josh Wilson (40 tackles, 3 INT, 14 PD) is a question mark, however, after sustaining a shoulder stinger against the Bengals.
This is generally a source of strength on the Baltimore side, as Harbaugh was a longtime special teams coordinator in Philadelphia prior to becoming the team's head coach. Kicker Billy Cundiff earned a Pro Bowl citation after making good on 26-of-29 field goal tries and excelling on kickoffs, where his 38 touchbacks were far and away the most in the league. Punter Sam Koch also turned in a strong year, placing 39 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line (2nd overall) and helping the Ravens place fourth in the NFL in net punting (39.2 avg.). Main kick returner David Reed (29.3 avg., 1 TD) will likely miss a third straight week with a wrist injury, with reserve running back Jalen Parmele (23.4 avg.) set to handle that assignment, while second-year pro Lardarius Webb averaged a solid 9.5 yards taking back punts.
The Chiefs have also gotten good work out of their punter, with the strong- legged Dustin Colquitt averaging 44.4 yards per boot and sending 33 shots within the opposing 20-yard line (4th overall). Kicker Ryan Succop endured a bit of a sophomore slump, however, hitting on just 77 percent (20-of-26) of his field goal attempts after going 25-of-29 during his 2009 debut. Return duties were split by a pair of rookie draft choices, cornerback Javier Arenas (21.2 avg. on KR, 8.1 avg. on PR) and wide receiver Dexter McCluster (20.3 avg.). Neither stood out on kickoffs, but the shifty McCluster averaged 15.5 yards on 13 punt runbacks and had a 94-yard touchdown in Kansas City's season-opening win over rival San Diego.