Mike Preston: No NFL team wants to shuffle off to Buffalo for the playoffs

Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — As the NFL regular season comes down to the final two weeks and the playoff picture becomes clearer if still somewhat muddled, the team in the AFC that few want to play is the Bills, especially in Buffalo.

The Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) are the defending Super Bowl champions and are likely to secure the conference bye, but the Bills (11-3) appear to be the most complete and balanced team with few weaknesses.

Kansas City has the NFL’s most explosive offense, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a Most Valuable Player candidate. Wide receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Le’Veon Bell make it impossible to shut down the Chiefs. But Buffalo has the personnel to at least slow them.

The Bills have a good, strong physical defense, led by linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who has 105 tackles, but the top group on this unit is the secondary with safeties Micah Hyde (68 tackles) and Jordan Poyer (117 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Tre’Davious White (42 tackles, three interceptions). Poyer and Hyde don’t just play good pass defense, but are strong in run support, too, especially Poyer.

Offensively, the Bills became a force in March when they traded with the Minnesota Vikings to obtain wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who has 111 receptions for 1,314 yards and five touchdowns this season. Buffalo has a nice little passing game with Diggs, who starred at Maryland, and slot receiver Cole Beasley (79 catches for 950 yards, four touchdowns), and it will get better once speedy receiver John Brown, a former Raven, gets healthy from an ankle injury.

The Bills are balanced offensively, averaging 108.2 rushing and 289.6 passing yards per game, and Josh Allen has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL this season, completing 351 of 511 passes for 4,000 yards and a quarterback rating of 104.2. Defensively, the Bills are allowing 121.3 rushing and 234.7 passing yards per game.

Plus, if the Bills get a playoff game or two at home it’s a major advantage because no one wants to play in Buffalo in January. As for the other teams competing for a playoff spot, only the Tennessee Titans cause concern if they play the Ravens.

The Ravens can handle the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts if they were somehow to meet in the postseason.

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The Ravens have piled up a lot of rushing yards in the past three games, partly because they’ve met little resistance from teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars.

But there’s another reason: better line play. The Ravens have a settled group of five linemen, and that consistency and rhythm are essential to effective play up front. Earlier in the season, the Ravens had to shuttle the starting group because of injuries to starters Ronnie Stanley, the left offensive tackle, and rookie right guard Tyre Phillips. The Ravens also had problems with center Matt Skura’s snaps.

Now, the group seems set with Patrick Mekari at center, Ben Powers and Bradley Bozeman at guard, and Orlando Brown Jr. and D.J. Fluker at tackle, with Phillips being the top reserve.

“Yes, I think the confidence is there with our group — from the coaches, from us as individuals, we’ve been able to be consistent,” said Brown, the starting left tackle. “To have that same group, and to be able to develop that continuity, for all five of us to go out there and be able to communicate, or understand miscommunication and still make things right, it’s very important up front. This group of five has been really, really good. Everybody is playing hard, everybody knows what they’re doing, and everybody has bought in.”

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According to published reports, Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters has been fined $12,500 by the league for unsportsmanlike conduct after he appeared to spit at Browns receiver Jarvis Landry when the two played each other in a “Monday Night Football” game Dec. 14.

Of course, Peters denied he intentionally spit at Landry and reportedly is appealing the fine. Peters got the backing of his coach, John Harbaugh last week, but that was expected, especially with the final stretch of the season here.

But before the Ravens dealt for Peters on Oct. 15, 2019, few teams wanted to engage in trade talks with Los Angeles because of Peters’ disruptive attitude with the Rams and Chiefs, who selected Peters in the first round of the 2015 draft.

Right now, Peters’ play is much more valuable than his attitude. When it gets flipped around, the Ravens will jettison him, much as they did former Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III early in training camp.

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It’s amazing to watch some of the things Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson does on a field.

He can change directions without slowing down going in and out of a break. He has amazing balance and the ability to continue a play even when he is going down.

And just imagine what he could be like if he ever became mechanically sound in throwing the ball. He doesn’t have the arm strength of Allen or Mahomes, but he could become so much better.

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Ravens rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen struggles to get off blocks once engaged, but his future looks bright if he has a good offseason or two in the weight room.

He also struggles at times in pass coverage, which is to be expected, but he runs to the football extremely well. Against Jacksonville, he was out in the flat at times easily anticipating quarterback Gardner Minshew II’s passes to running back James Robinson. That’s a sign of good film study.

The bulk needs to come through lifting weights, but meanwhile the fact that Queen’s staying on the field as much as he is as a rookie is a major plus.

Another rookie who continues to play well is defensive tackle Justin Madubuike. He had a strong performance against the Browns and followed it with another strong outing versus Jacksonville. With a strong offseason under his belt, it will be hard for the Ravens to keep him off the field next season.