The AFC West Champion Kansas City Chiefs welcome the Baltimore Ravens to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday for their first home playoff game in seven years.
Coming in with a record of 12-4, the Ravens come in as one of two favored road playoff teams. They finished the regular season with a tight 13-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals while the Chiefs closed things out with an embarrassing 31-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
The overwhelming message from the national media is that the Ravens will have no problem taking down the home team, a message that head coach Todd Haley has no doubt reminded his players of throughout the week.
Here are the three players from each team that you will need to keep your eyes on.
Offense: Jamaal Charles
It is finally time. Time for Todd Haley to fully unleash his most potent weapon.
Charles came inches away from recording the most effective season for a running back ever with his 6.4 yards per carry average, yet continued all season to have his carries limited by head coach Todd Haley. Only three times did Charles carry the ball more than 20 times in a game this season.
Now that the Chiefs find themselves int he second season there is nothing left to save Charles for. That isn’t to say Thomas Jones should be ignored because he has a very important role to play against a tough Ravens defense, but Charles needs to be the star. Anything short of 25 touches for Charles should be seen as a failure for the Kansas City offense.
Though he has received some national attention, this game should officially serve as the coming out party for Jamaal Charles around the country.
Defense: Tamba Hali
We’ve all heard the cliche: Big time players make big time plays in big time games.
Hali has been the Chiefs biggest player on defense all year and is now playing the biggest game of his career. He is the rare holdover from the 2006 Kansas City team that lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs, but back then he was playing the role of sidekick to Jared Allen. Now that Hali is the one running with sidekicks, he needs to wreak havoc all day long in the Ravens backfield.
Luckily for the Kansas City defense, Hali is playing his best football of the season. Over the last five games he has registered 6.5 sacks, including 2.5 last week against the Raiders.
Special Teams: Dustin Colquitt
Speaking of cliches, we all know the Chiefs will need to win the battle of field position if they are going to pull out the upset. That puts the focus on Colquitt, who like Hali is playing some of his best football of the season down the stretch. In the last six games, Colquitt has averaged three punts per game inside the 20 with only two touchbacks over that span.
Colquitt who will look to keep the ball away from Lardarius Webb who was quiet the last two games (4 returns, 15 yards) but the two weeks before put up two of his three 20+ yard returns of the season.
Offense: Ray Rice
There was no player more excited for this matchup than Rice. He has been given nearly 24 carries a game over the final month of the season and will be facing a defense that just gave up over 200 yards on the ground to the Oakland Raiders.
With the Chiefs possessing the ability to go one-on-one with both Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers on the outside, look for Eric Berry to play in the box more than usual to try and slow down Rice.
Like Charles with the Chiefs, good things happen for Baltimore when Rice carries the ball. If you put aside a tough overtime loss to the Patriots, Rice only averaged 12.3 carries in their three other losses this season.
Defense: Terrell Suggs
The question isn’t how good Suggs its, but rather how healthy is he? The vocal linebacker has made it clear that he plans to play but that doesn’t mean he will be as effective as he needs to be. If Suggs favors that knee at all — which was injured on a cut block — look for the Chiefs tackles and backs to keep going after the area.
Ray Lewis leads the defense in tackles, but Suggs is the leader of the Ravens pass rush. If he finds his way to Matt Cassel at anywhere near the frequency that the Raiders linebackers did, it will be a long day for the Kansas City offense.
Special Teams: Billy Cundiff
The struggling Chiefs special teams will have quite the challenge in front of them Sunday and one of the biggest reasons is Cundiff. He is going to the Pro Bowl this season thanks in large part to his 26-for-29 season on field goals, though he is just as valuable on kickoffs.
You can get a more detailed rundown of what Cundiff and punter Sam Koch bring to the table here, but the most important thing to know is that no kicker in NFL history recorded more touchbacks than Cundiff did this season.