Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Keys to the game
The Ravens have been harping on execution to turn around an offense that slid to 22nd in the NFL during the regular season. There has been a definite move from a pass-heavy gameplan to more of RB Ray Rice, who averaged 23.8 carries the past four weeks. While Baltimore wants to be more physical offensively, it also has to get WR Anquan Boldin (five catches for 26 yards the past three games) more involved. LT Michael Oher (eight false starts during the regular season) has a tough matchup against Chief OLB Tamba Hali (14.5 sacks).
The Chiefs use RBs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones to bring safeties forward and then challenge man coverage downfield against WR Dwayne Bowe. That's especially critical with S Ed Reed (eight interceptions in 10 games) roaming the Ravens' secondary. In their 10 wins, the Chiefs averaged 196.8 rushing yards and allowed 30 sacks, compared to 109.8 rushing yards and 30 sacks in their six losses. Baltimore did give up 52 completions of 20-plus yards, so QB Matt Cassel can take a few shots downfield.
Flacco has led the Ravens to the postseason in each of his three seasons. ... Jones seeks to become the first NFL player to score a rushing touchdown in the playoffs for three different teams. ... The Chiefs have lost six straight playoff games.
Inside the Ravens
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron acknowledged he talked to Hue Jackson this week as Baltimore prepares to play at the Kansas City Chiefs in the opening round of the playoffs.
Jackson, the Ravens' former quarterbacks coach, was the Oakland offensive coordinator when the Raiders totaled 31 points and 344 yards of total offense last Sunday at Kansas City.
"You know, this time of year, you talk to anybody that you know," Cameron said.
Cameron has been hearing the criticism over the Baltimore Ravens falling to No. 22 in offense and recording a season-low 199 yards in the regular season finale.
"The good news is, all the stats can be thrown out the window at this point," Cameron said. "The great thing about the playoffs, it is a new season and it's been proven year-after-year that teams can elevate their play, and then some teams don't elevate their play. What better time for us to play the way you've seen us play in spurts throughout the entire season and in various games?"
Cameron pointed out that the offense is helping with the most important statistic — wins. The Ravens (12-4) have their best record in coach John Harbaugh's three seasons and are one of three teams to reach the playoffs the past three seasons.
But it hasn't been easy. The Ravens' four-game winning streak to end the season resulted in an average margin of 6.75 points.
"Winning ugly ain't all that bad," Cameron said. "I think we've proven we can win games in the teens, we can win games in the 20s and we've proven we can win games in the 30s. We'd all like to do it scoring over 30 points."
Cameron's top priority to becoming a winning offense is protecting the ball. Baltimore set a franchise record with 20 offensive turnovers this season, which was the seventh-fewest in the NFL this season.
"We want to take care of the football," Cameron said. "I'm old-school from that perspective."
Cameron said the Ravens need to eliminate mistakes and perform the way they practice in order to improve. "I'm confident our guys will," he said.
Meanwhile, although David Reed must wear a hard brace to protect a torn ligament in his left wrist that makes it nearly impossible for him to hold the football in his left arm and hand, the Ravens are hopeful that the rookie kick returner will be available Sunday.
"He had a good practice today," special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Jerry Rosburg said after Thursday's practice. "He got some balls in his hand and looks like he's growing more comfortable with his device he has on his arm. So we'll see how it plays out."
If Reed — who led the NFL in kick return average with a 29.3 average during the regular season — can't play, Jalen Parmele will likely become the team's primary kick returner.
Inside the Chiefs
Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel spent time on the phone this week talking to his adviser on postseason play, a fellow by the name of Tom Brady. Yes, that Brady, the New England quarterback with the 14-4 record in the playoffs over his career including three Super Bowl titles.
Cassel is making his first start in the NFL postseason this coming Sunday against Baltimore.
"I continue to go to him for support," Cassel said of his former teammate with the Patriots. "He says go out there and have fun and enjoy the experience because there are a lot of teams out there that are wishing they were in our position."
Brady and the Patriots faced the Ravens during the 2010 regular season and Cassel says there were a few tidbits about the Baltimore defense that he shared during their call. "He reiterated what you can see on film; they are an outstanding front seven. They are an outstanding defense and the best defense that we've seen," said Cassel.
The playoffs are the time when quarterbacks establish their careers as the superstars of the game. Brady tops the list that 14-4 record as a starter. Spending one of those Super Bowl seasons with Brady gave Cassel an eyeful of what the starting quarterback needs to get done in these situations.
"I think it goes to preparation; he was so meticulous in his awareness of what was going on in the game plan," Cassel said. "We would go over the game plan four or five times on the night before the game. There wasn't any stone unturned. We made sure we were meeting with the receivers and meeting with the running backs and everyone is on the same page.
"Going into this week it's very important for me and some of the other guys to take it upon ourselves and be prepared on Sunday. The other thing I learned from Tom was about Sunday — when you get out there enjoy the experience and embrace the opportunity. If you just go out there and you are so shell-shocked that it's the playoffs, you won't enjoy it, and you really do have to enjoy it."