The Playoffs start in Week 17 in Oakland for the Ravens. Win, and they advance to the postseason. Lose, and they are playing golf next weekend, regardless of what the host of other AFC Playoff contenders do. It’s a very cut-and-dry scenario, but one that has Ravens fans a bit uneasy, despite the seemingly impotent opponent.
Oakland has some wins against very good teams on their resume this year (Philadelphia, Cincinnati, @ Pittsburgh, Denver), while they have also lost against some scrubs (Kansas City, Washington, Cleveland). You never know what you are going to get from the Raiders week in and week out. A week after beating the Eagles at home, they lost to the Jets 38-0 in the Black Hole. After winning at Heinz Field, they got smacked around by the Redskins 34-13. They have been as schizophrenic a team as their owner, Al Davis, is crazy.
What the Ravens need to do is jump out to an early double digit lead. The Raiders would be perfectly happy to be talking vacation plans, rather than defensive plans, by halftime – they just need a push in the right direction. Fortunately, for all the faults that you can find with John Harbaugh’s teams over his first two years as a head coach, “plays down to lesser opponents” is not one of them. Scoring early and often, a la the Lions and Bears games last month, will have Oakland throwing in the towel quickly. Instead of looking at polaroids from the game on the bench, they’ll be sharing vacation brochures.
The formula to a big purple win is going to be lots and lots of Ray Rice. Oakland is 29th in the NFL against the run, giving up nearly 150 yards per game. Last week, Cleveland’s Jerome Harrison put up 148. Rice had plenty of success against Pittsburghs #1 run defense, and should find plenty of holes on Sunday. Rice, however, needs to focus on ball security, as he has now fumbled in three of the last four games, after not fumbling at all in his rookie season, or for the first 12 games of 2009.
Helping open holes for Rice and protect Joe Flacco’s back will once again be Jared Gaither, who is set to return to the lineup. Gaither will have to deal with defensive end Greg Ellis, who leads the team with seven sacks. Michael Oher will go back to the right side, where he will spend a good part of his day matched up against former New England Patriot Richard Seymour. If the line can protect Flacco adequately, he will still likely have to spread the ball around more than he has lately. Last week, he never even looked toward Mark Clayton, and Todd Heap, Kelley Washington, Ray Rice, Demetrius Williams, and Le’Ron McClain had just six catches combined between the five of them. The reason for this is that Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha, probably the second best corner in the league, is likely to be shadowing Derrick Mason all over the field. If Joe sees #21 on #85, his best bet is going to be to look to the other side of the field.
On offense, the Raiders are putting their hopes in the hands of quarterback Charlie Frye, as their best option, Bruce Gradkowski, is out with knee problems. Frye, whom Ravens fans should remember from his days in Cleveland, has been terrible in 2009. In two starts, he has completed 56% of his passes for 401 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT, and a passer rating of 49.2. The Ravens expect to get Ed Reed back for a handful of plays Sunday afternoon, and the Ravens secondary, which has improved steadily this season, shouldn’t have much trouble with Frye and the very average Oakland receiving corps.
Oakland’s running game is really the only area where they can hurt the Ravens. Running back Michael Bush averages 5.1 yards per carry, and had 133 yards against Denver two weeks ago. Their other most productive runner, Justin Fargas, is not expected to play. Second year runner Darren McFadden, despite having the edge on Ray Rice in nicknames (RUN DMC vs. “to be decided”), is no Ray Rice on the field. The Ravens boast the league’s #1 yards-per-carry defense, and should be able to bottle up Bush without too much trouble. That double digit lead mentioned earlier will be another weapon in limiting the effectiveness of the Raiders’ runners.
Win = In.
Ravens 27 Raiders 10