Ravens bank on playoff experience
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Todd Haley did a nose count to see how many Kansas City Chiefs own what he calls "priceless" playoff experience and was pleased to find that 21 do.
That also means 32 don't.
Players who were key to Kansas City's six-game improvement such as Jamaal Charles and Tamba Hali will be tasting playoff pressure for the first time when the Chiefs host the battle-savvy Baltimore Ravens in a 1 p.m. kickoff on Arrowhead Stadium's cold, hard turf.
If playoff experience proves decisive, the Ravens (12-4) should be on their way to their fourth playoff win in three seasons. Cast as the wild-card team because they lost the tiebreaker to the Steelers, the Ravens are 3-2 in road playoff games since January 2009.
The last time the Chiefs (10-6) won a playoff game, Haley was giving golf lessons on Long Island, wondering if a career change would be a good idea. Now, 17 years later, the Chiefs are AFC West champs and in search of their first playoff win since an aging Joe Montana took them to the AFC title game in 1994.
"Talent is one thing," said Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Your first, second, third quarter, talent is doing great. But then that fourth quarter, experience and playoff knowledge on what you do in these tight situations and what you do against this or against that, that's where it all clicks in at."
The Chiefs are not entirely without playoff experience. Right guard Ryan Lilja and linebacker Mike Vrabel can impart to youthful teammates lessons they learned in Super Bowl victories.
"It's priceless what they can pass on," Haley said. "We've got 21 guys that have some experience in the playoffs. Now, a lot of it is coming from a select few, but the good thing is those guys are all really strong leaders for us that aren't afraid to let these guys know that everything is about one thing, and that's trying to be at our best for this Sunday. It's not about anything else."
Another edge that Baltimore brings figures to be defense. Four Ravens were picked to the Pro Bowl — Lewis, linebacker Terrell Suggs, tackle Haloti Ngata and safety Ed Reed. Kansas City's improved defense did not place anybody in the Pro Bowl.
The Ravens are particularly good at stopping what Kansas City does best. Their run defense ranked fifth in the league, allowing fewer than 94 yards per game.
The Chiefs, led by Charles, averaged an NFL-best 164.2 yards on the ground. Charles went for 1,467 yards, finishing second in the NFL, and Thomas Jones added 896. With 6.38 yards per attempt, Charles also came within a whisker of Jim Brown's NFL record.
"He's just real shifty and quick to the hole," Ngata said. "He does a lot of things really well. He definitely is different from last year. Last year was just only his second year, and in the beginning of the season we had them first game, so this is a totally different Charles. Hopefully, we can get a good feel of him and get him down."
The Chiefs' potent running game opened the way for Matt Cassel's turnaround season as well. The second-year starter threw 27 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions and totaled 3,136 yards passing. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will pose the biggest threat for Reed and the rest of the Ravens' pass defense after leading the NFL with 15 touchdown receptions.
But the Chiefs, 3-point underdogs, have some areas to attack as well. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco had the best season of his three-year career, throwing for 3,622 yards and 25 touchdowns. But he was sacked 40 times.
Two years after setting an NFL record with a meager 10 sacks, the Chiefs turned in 39 this season. Hali led the AFC with 14 1/2. Might the Chiefs be drawing up any special plans for getting to the Ravens' third-year starter?
"Not that I want to share," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "We will wait for Sunday and see what happens."
Hali, moved from undersized defensive end to rush linebacker, had 2 1/2 sacks in the regular-season finale against Oakland.
Also making rapid improvement is rookie safety Eric Berry. A big hitter, Berry led the Chiefs with four interceptions and was named NFL Defensive Rookie for the Month for December.
"They're young guys back there, but they're playing well," Flacco said. "Hali, No. 91, he has the ability to get some pressure. So, we're going to have to account for him up front and make sure we handle it well."
While matching their win total of the past three seasons combined, the Chiefs did lay a few eggs. Three of their losses were by 20 points or more. Baltimore, on the other hand, had an average margin of defeat in four losses of only four points.
While the Chiefs did a reasonably good job protecting Cassel, their sacks allowed have been going up. After allowing only eight through their first seven games, they yielded 25 in their last nine. They've had the most trouble with big, physical defenses such as Oakland. The Raiders sacked Cassel five times in the regular-season finale while beating the Chiefs, 31-10.
And it's a big, physical defense the Ravens are bringing.
"All those guys up there are very disruptive and will make it a long day if you don't handle them up front," Haley said. "For our offense, this will be clearly the greatest test of the year to date — the best defense that we've seen."