Archive for the ‘Ravens Game Previews’ Category

AFC Championship Preview – Ravens (13-4) @ Patriots (14-3)

January 20, 2012

Going back to the days of Brian Billick, it’s been a staple of Baltimore Ravens teams: they play better as the underdog. Linebacker Jarret Johnson, a Raven since 2003, admitted as much during an interview this week, and any devoted purple faithful can attest to it – they’ve just never handled being the favorite well. They’ll have to continue that tradition on Sunday, as the New England Patriots enter the AFC Championship game as touchdown (or more, depending on who you ask) favorites.

Many are pointing to the Ravens’ 33-14 win at Foxboro in the 2009 Wild Card game as evidence that the Ravens can go to New England and get the job done. However, that game seems more like an aberration than the norm, especially when you consider other recent Ravens-Patriots contests. Aside from that game, the other two times these teams have played since 2009 both came down to the wire. In the 2009 regular season, the Ravens were a Mark Clayton dropped pass on 4th down in the final moments away from a 1st-and-goal situation needing only a touchdown and an extra point to come away with a 28-27 victory. In the 2010 regular season, the Ravens took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter only to see Tom Brady will his team to 13 unanswered points and a Steven Gostkowski game-winning field goal at the two minute warning of overtime.

These teams play close games. Expect a tight one Sunday.

On the other side, most national – and even some local – pundits are already dismissing the Ravens, based solely on their relatively “poor” showing against the Houston Texans last week in the Divisional Round. However, anybody that watches the Ravens regularly – especially this year – knows that what happens one week has very little bearing on what transpires the next.

This is a team that beat Pittsburgh 35-7, then lost at Tennessee 26-13, then pasted St. Louis 37-7 to start the year. They had a terrible loss in Seattle sandwiched by key divisional wins in Pittsburgh and against Cincinnati. The Ravens got physically whooped at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against the Texans. What eases my mind is that not only is that an extremely rare occurrence for the Ravens, but it’s almost unheard of for it to happen two weeks in a row. They’ll be going up against a New England squad that is much more known for their finesse than their physicality, so the Ravens’ heavies that got their feelings hurt last week should be up for the challenge of having a solid rebound game.

And they’ll need to – again, on both sides. On offense, they’ll need to do a much better job of opening up holes for Ray Rice and Ricky Williams to control the clock and keep Brady and his arsenal on the sidelines. They’ll need to protect Joe Flacco a lot better against a Pats’ pass rush that racked up 40 sacks during the regular season, and give him time to make throws to move the chains and take shots down the field to Torrey Smith or Lee Evans when they present themselves.

On defense, linemen Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, and Cory Redding, and linebackers Johnson, Terrell Suggs, and Paul Kruger will have to do a much better job of getting in Brady’s face than they did against T.J. Yates. Suggs has historically been a monster against New England and his favorite “pretty boy” Brady, and he’ll need to continue that string of dominance. In the past, the Ravens have had great success in getting Brady uncomfortable in the pocket. Even former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison had Brady on the run the last time these teams met, only to revert to his patented 3-man rush at the worst possible times.

Inconsistent or non-existent pressure on Brady will is a recipe for disaster against New England, as it has been for years now. The Patriots’ offense boasts dangerous weapons at pretty much every position – from Wes Welker and Deion Branch on the outside to beast tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in the middle.

A huge question in Baltimore this week has been “how will the Ravens deal with the New England tight ends?”

While the Ravens have basically NO linebackers who can be considered strong in coverage, they’ve still somehow managed to have success against opposing tight ends this year. They’ve given up the second fewest yards and touchdowns to tight ends in the NFL this year, and no tight end gained more than 73 yards in a game against them all season. It will take someone much smarter than me to explain that contradiction, but there you have it.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to moderately contain Gronkowski in a 25-17 win over New England earlier this year, and they did so by matching a rookie cornerback – not a linebacker or safety – on Gronk. As I said in my interview with Foxboro Blog earlier this week, I think the Ravens would be well served by doing the same thing with their own rookie CB Jimmy Smith. Smith is big and physical, and is probably the Ravens’ best bet to match up with the size and speed of the second-year tight end. The question is whether or not the team trusts a rookie to cover such a key cog in an explosive offense in the most important game of the season.

Pittsburgh also got physical with the Patriots at the line, specifically cornerback Ike Taylor on Welker. Personally, I’d put Lardarius Webb on Welker all afternoon; Webb has been the Ravens’ best corner all year, and seems to be peaking here in the postseason based on his two interceptions last week. The Ravens don’t typically match up their corners though, so it will be interesting to see how Chuch Pagano decides to try to attack New England.

Brady is undoubtedly one of the best ever, but he’s struggled against the Ravens. In his last four games against the purple and black, he’s managed just six touchdown passes while throwing six interceptions and being sacked 12 times, for a quarterback rating of 72.1. Compare that to his career rating of 96.9 against the league’s other 30 teams, and it’s obvious that he’s just not able to do the things he’s comfortable with against this Baltimore defense.

The Patriots defense, on the other hand, takes a lot of heat for giving up tons of yardage – 31st in the NFL. However, they were just 15th in points allowed, so you have to think that a lot of that yardage was due to the fact that teams were frantically trying to catch up to New England on the scoreboard after falling into an early hole. Still, after the defenses the Ravens have faced this season (10-2 against the teams that finished in the top 10 overall), going up against the Pats should be like swinging a baseball bat after taking the donut weight off; that is to say, much easier. There is no reason to expect the struggles they experienced a week ago against Houston to carry over to Foxboro. The last time Flacco went against this Patriots defense, he was 27/35 (77%), for 285 yards, 2 TDs, 0 turnovers, and a 119.3 quarterback rating. Similar success will be critical on Sunday.

I haven’t picked against the Ravens this season – while I’ll freely admit I’m a homer, I also honestly believed that every time they took the field, they had the talent and personnel to win the game. This time is no different. Sure, the Patriots have the pretty stats, but the fact is that they’ve only played two teams with winning records all year (three, if you want to count the now 9-9 Denver Broncos), and they lost both of those games (again, 1-2 if you count the Tebows). The Ravens, on the other hand, are now 7-0 against teams that made the postseason. They’ve proven they can hang with – and beat – the league’s best squads.

Sunday is another chance to do just that, and while it should be a nail-biter to the end, I believe they will.

Ravens 27 Patriots 24


Divisional Playoff Preview – Texans (11-6) @ Ravens (12-4)

January 12, 2012

The Houston Texans, fresh off their first playoff victory in franchise history – a 31-10 spanking of the Cincinnati Bengals – come to Baltimore for the second time this year hoping to earn a berth in the AFC Championship game. As I said several times this week, the Texans are to be commended for their first ever postseason win, and for doing it with a third string quarterback. Beating the Bengals, though, a team that hasn’t won a playoff game themselves since 1990 – twelve years before the Texans even existed – is one thing. Coming into M&T Bank Stadium and beating a postseason tested veteran group such as these Ravens? That’s another thing altogether.

Joe Flacco

Joe has been taking some heat this week for speaking out about all the heat he takes.

I’ll wait while you go read that again.

Back with me? Ok, good.

I don’t really care about all that extracurricular stuff; my feelings on our quarterback are well documented around these parts. You want to shut up the critics, Joe? Here’s your chance.

For all the handwringing that was done earlier this year about how the Ravens’ offense is inept against 4-3 defenses, I sure haven’t heard anybody citing the Texans’ 3-4 as a Ravens’ advantage coming into this game. While I was of the mind that it was a silly criticism at the time (and still am), the fact remains that three of the Ravens’ four losses this season (Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle) came against teams that employ a base 4-3 front. These were also teams that were able to get adequate pressure with their front four, something the Ravens’ offense severely struggled with.

Against 3-4 defenses, the Ravens were 8-1 (by my count, based off depth charts), with the only loss coming to San Diego – a game in which the opposing offense was the key factor, as opposed to the defense.

To take it a step further, Joe Flacco is now 2-0 against Wade Phillips’ 3-4, with the other victory coming in 2008 when Phillips was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. In the two games combined, Joe was 37/58 (64%) for 454 yards, with two total touchdowns (one passing, one rushing), one interception, and two fumbles lost. The good news is that, in addition to being able to move the ball fairly effectively through the air, Joe seems to have fixed the fumbling issues he was having earlier this year. After fumbling ten times in the team’s first 11 games, Flacco has put the ball on the turf just once since Week 11, and not at all since Week 13 in Cleveland. That’s a trend that needs to continue if the Ravens are going to continue to advance towards Indianapolis.

The Texans boast the NFL’s third-ranked passing defense, but based on the fact that Flacco has had success against this and other similar systems (Pittsburgh, Arizona, to name a couple) in the past, I think the Ravens will have some success throwing the ball Sunday. Anquan Boldin will be playing in his first game since Week 15, and Cam Cameron would be wise to get Q the ball early to get him into the flow of the offense. Boldin went off against the Texans in Week 6, catching eight passes for 132 yards. He says he feels as good or better than he has felt all year, so expect Boldin to be a big part of the game plan against Houston. Flacco’s increasing chemistry with tight end Dennis Pitta will be key as well, especially on third downs.

I bring up Joe first, because both teams will likely have the same mindset on defense…

Stopping the Run

Arian Foster (1224 rushing yards, 617 receiving yards, 12 total touchdowns) vs. Ray Rice (1364 rushing yards, 704 receiving yards, 15 total touchdowns) is quite a match up on the ground. However, these two defenses were ranked #2 and #4 against the run during the regular season, so both backs will be hard pressed to find much running room. In the first match up, Rice had the better day, with 161 yards from scrimmage to Foster’s 101. If those numbers repeat themselves, the Ravens should emerge victorious. However, if Houston is to stand a chance, the two runners’ numbers will have to be much more similar to each other this time around. The best way to prevent that on Baltimore’s part is to find a way to make Houston one-dimensional.

The extra week of rest should do the Ravens good, as Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata, two of the key cogs in the B’More run defense, continue to nurse toe and thigh injuries, respectively, back to health. If Ngata especially can come out of the bye at closer to 100% and more closely resemble the player he was at the beginning of the year, he could make life hell for Foster and fellow running back Ben Tate all afternoon. Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson will be counted on to set the edge against Houston’s zone-blocking scheme, while Ngata, Cory Redding, Terrence Cody and the Ravens’ linebackers will have to be near flawless in gap discipline. Again, they did a great job the first time around – let’s hope they can repeat the performance.

Rice and Foster will be counted on to carry their teams, but with both defenses selling out to stop the opposing backs, this game could very well come down to quarterback play.

In that scenario, I like the aforementioned Flacco over his Houston counterpart.

T.J. Yates

The simple fact is that no rookie quarterback has come into Baltimore and beat the Ravens since way back in 1997 when Jake Plummer and the Cardinals pulled it off. No opposing rookie quarterback has EVER won at M&T Bank Stadium.

But I don’t want to summarily dismiss Houston based on that. Another indisputable fact is that T.J. Yates has a hell of a supporting cast around him. For one, Houston will have All-Universe wide receiver Andre Johnson back on the field. Johnson, who missed the Week 6 match up in Baltimore, torched the Ravens for 140 yards and two touchdowns when these teams met at Reliant Stadium in 2010. Obviously, he had Matt Schaub throwing him the ball in that game and not Yates, but #80 would be a threat with Kyle Boller as his quarterback. Yates and Johnson hooked up for 90 yards and a long score in Wild Card weekend.

The rookie QB out of North Carolina has made six starts and won three of those. His numbers don’t jump off the page at you, as his touchdown last week was his first since Week 14. In fact, Yates hasn’t thrown a touchdown against a team not wearing Bengals jerseys since Week 13, and three of his four career touchdown throws are against Cincinnati. Still, he hasn’t thrown an interception in three straight games, and his 97.7 passer rating last week was his lowest of those three contests.

I had a Texans fan argue with me on Twitter this week, extolling the virtues of Yates as a mobile quarterback – at least compared to Schaub. While he may in fact be a bit better at extending plays than the first-stringer, it isn’t evidenced by one key stat – sacks.

When Matt Schaub was playing this season, he was sacked on just about 5% of his dropbacks. Yates, so far, has been sacked 17 times in 6+ games, or on nearly 11% of his dropbacks. If Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee, and company can manage to get to Yates once or twice every 10 times he drops back to pass Sunday, that will add a key ingredient to the Ravens’ recipe for success.

Houston ran the ball on 17 of their 23 first down plays last week – expect them to strive for a similar ratio this week, if they can keep the game close. The key for the Ravens will be getting the Texans off schedule by stuffing the run on first or second down, and forcing Yates to move the chains with his arm. It’s Football 101, but it’s also a formula that has won the Ravens a boatload of games over the years.


Again, all due respect to Houston and everything they’ve accomplished this season. If their run ends Sunday, though, their year will still be considered a resounding success.  The same cannot be said of the Ravens. This home playoff game is what John Harbaugh’s squad has been striving for since he came to town four seasons ago, and I have to believe this team of postseason-tested veterans, playing in their own home, where they were undefeated this year, against a rookie quarterback and a team full of playoff novices, will overwhelm the Texans in the end.

The Ravens are as healthy as they’ve been since Week 1 (no player missed practice on Wednesday or Thursday, and only Jameel McClain and Brendan Ayanbadejo were even limited), when they housed the defending AFC Champion Steelers 35-7. Ben Grubbs, Jimmy Smith, Tom Zbikowski, and others were all absent from the Week 6 win on the Baltimore side. So while the Texans are getting their superstar back, Baltimore counters with some quality talent of their own that wasn’t on the field the last time these teams met. On top of that, Texans’ tight end Owen Daniels broke his hand in last week’s game. While he is expected to play, he will be at less than 100%.

Yates is making just his seventh career start, and he has yet to face anything resembling the madhouse (or, new “World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum“) that will be M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. The rookie, at this point, would hardly be confused with the caliber of quarterbacks that have dismissed the Ravens from the playoffs the last few years (Ben Roethlisberger twice, Peyton Manning, both of whom went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl; Can even the most homerific of Texans fans really expect to see T.J. Yates hoisting the Lamar Hunt Trophy in nine days?)

John Harbaugh teams are 4-0 following a bye week, with an average margin of victory of 18 points (all at home, including the 29-14 win over Houston in Week 6 this year).

Oh, and B’More is on an 18-1 streak at home dating back to the 2009 season.

The deck is just stacked much too high against Houston. This Ravens team feeds off the purple crowd like none before them, and I’m confident they’ll reward us for that infusion of energy with our first home playoff win since the 2000 season.

Ravens 27 Texans 13

Ravens (11-4) @ Bengals (9-6)

December 30, 2011

First off, I was curious as to how the numbers from this year’s Week 17 Bengals-Ravens match up compare to the stats going into the same game last season…

/hops in handy-dandy purple time machine, sets date to Week 17 2010

/time machine returns

Well, what I learned was that these teams are pretty much exactly the same statistically as they were a year ago, with a couple differences – the thing that stands out most is the improvement of the Bengals’ defense from a year ago. They weren’t ranked any higher than 19 in any major category last season, and now they’re not below 12 in any of the same metrics. As for the Ravens, I find it interesting that, though the offense and defense have both seemed a bit better than they did last season, they enter Week 17 13th in scoring offense and 3rd in scoring defense – just like they did last year.

All of this is, of course, relevant to nothing really. I was just curious.

Back to the game at hand.

This contest shaped up just the way the NFL wanted it to when they made the schedule – both teams have everything to play for. Cincy doesn’t NEED to win to lock up the final AFC Wild Card spot – but they would need help if they don’t. On the other hand, if they win, they’re in. Pretty simple from that standpoint.

The Ravens need a win to secure the AFC North title and the conference’s #2 overall seed. While again, they don’t NEED to win for that to happen, they would need some help if they lose. And let’s be honest – nobody expects the Cleveland Browns to step up and beat Pittsburgh for Baltimore on Sunday, so a loss would in all likelihood relegate them to the #5 seed and yet another bridesmaid spot in the AFC North race. Baltimore and Pittsburgh could both, depending on what New England does, finish the day as high as the #1 seed or as low as the #5 seed.

It’s a lot simpler for the Ravens, though – win and take next week off, then play the AFC Divisional round at M&T Bank Stadium, where they went a perfect 8-0 in the regular season.

Easier said than done, especially against a hungry Bengals team that gave the Ravens all they could handle back in Week 11.

Cincinnati, though, has gone an unimpressive 1-6 against teams with winning records this season. The Ravens, for their part, have struggled mightily on the road, going 3-4 so far with their only wins against hapless St. Louis and Cleveland, along with a last-minute win in Pittsburgh. Add to that that they’re a mere 2-6 in Southern Ohio since Marvin Lewis showed up, and something will have to give on Sunday.

The Bengals have been less than impressive lately. Since nearly completing a huge comeback in Charm City, they’ve beaten the Browns by a field goal, gotten stomped by Pittsburgh, lost at home to a T.J. Yates-led Texans squad, won in St. Louis by a touchdown, and barely held on at home against John Skelton and the Cardinals.

Again, the same could be said of the Ravens though. Their Thanksgiving night win against San Francisco was something to hang their hat on, but other than that they’ve beaten up on the Browns and Colts, and gotten smoked in San Diego. Last week they looked well on their way to a beatdown of Cleveland, only to let the Browns pull within a single score by the end.

Sunday’s game will likely, as so many do, come down to which team protects their quarterback better while getting after the opposing gunslinger. In Week 11, the Bengals managed only a single sack of Joe Flacco, while the Ravens were unable to get to Andy Dalton at all until the key final minutes, when they brought him down twice. The two defenses come into the game #2 (Ravens) and #3 (Bengals) in sacks, with 47 and 44, respectively.

The problem is that the Bengals do a good job of getting pressure with only four pass rushers, while the Ravens tend to need to dial up blitzes to get home. That’s exactly the kind of defense that gives the Ravens’ offense fits, so they’ll need to protect Joe like they were able to the last time these teams met. Not helping matters is the uncertain status of Marshal Yanda (ribs, thigh) for Sunday’s game. Hopefully the extra day of rest will be enough to get him back on the field, otherwise Andre Gurode will be counted on to stand up against the Bengals’ stout front.

Ray Rice had a good day statistically against Cincy last time around, with 104 yards on 20 carries. Fifty-nine of those yards were on one play though, and if you take away that gain, he averaged only 2.4 yards per carry. Marvin Lewis has done a good job of keeping Rice “in the box” so to speak in the past, so unless Cam Cameron has something special up his sleeve for this week (highly doubtful), I’d expect similar struggles for the Ravens’ running game and underneath passing attack.

It was Torrey Smith who the Bengals seemed to severely underestimate, as he pulled in 6 passes for 165 yards. They won’t be nearly as dismissive of the rookie out of Maryland this week, and with Anquan Boldin missing from the other side, should have no problems doubling Torrey all over the field. It will fall on the Ravens’ tight ends to represent themselves much better than they did against Cleveland last Saturday, when Ed Dickson, despite catching a touchdown, had two key drops and Dennis Pitta was never even targeted. While it would be nice for Tandon Doss or LaQuan Williams – or, for crying out loud, LEE EVANS – to make an impact, it’s probably a bit unrealistic to expect much from those guys at this point; look for lots of two-TE sets from Baltimore on Sunday.

The Bengals will counter with their own rookie wideout, A.J. Green. Green was absent from the Ravens’ Week 11 win, and could still be dealing with some issues from a shoulder injury suffered against St. Louis. The young phenom had only 2 catches for 25 yards last week, but is already over 1000 yards for the season on 63 catches and has hauled in 7 touchdowns. Let’s hope he’s still not at 100%, but the Ravens’ secondary will have their hands full regardless. After watching the trouble they had in San Diego, it’s tough to be too confident, that’s for sure.

And that’s not to mention fellow wideout Jerome Simpson, who had 8 catches for 152 yards against B’More last time, or tight end Jermaine Gresham, who pretty much had what could have been a key touchdown stolen from him. Chuck Pagano had better have a little better plan for these guys than he did for the Chargers, or even than he did the last time Cincy and Baltimore clashed.

While the Bengals will by no means roll over on Sunday, I’m basing any confidence I may have on Cincy crumbling under the pressure of what amounts to a playoff game for both squads. The Ravens have won four playoff games over the past three seasons – all on the road – and will treat this game as such. The Bengals have proven themselves to be just a tad below the level of playoff-caliber opposition this season, and the Ravens should be able to continue that trend.

Cincy will be a player in the AFC North for years to come with their young core. This year though, the Ravens manage to hold them off to sweep the division and bring home John Harbaugh’s first AFC North crown.

And if they don’t….GO BROWNS!

Ravens 24 Bengals 23

Browns (4-10) @ Ravens (10-4)

December 23, 2011

With the favor the San Francisco 49ers did for the Ravens in beating Pittsburgh on Monday night, Baltimore is back in control of their own destiny for the AFC North crown and a playoff bye. The Houston Texans lost to the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night as well, and while not particularly important as long as the Ravens keep winning, it was nice to see another AFC “contender” fall flat on their face against inferior competition as the Ravens have themselves done more times this season than we’d like to remember.

The Ravens, for their part, are trying to make a bit of history on Saturday afternoon, as they hope to complete their first ever undefeated regular season at M&T Bank Stadium. The Browns haven’t beaten Baltimore in Baltimore since the infamous “Phil Dawson Uprights” game back in 2007, falling by an average margin of nearly 19 points in three tries during the Harbaugh/Flacco era. They did give the Ravens a bit of a scare last year though, taking a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter before the Ravens reeled off 10 unanswered points for a 24-17 victory.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, the quarterback that nearly beat them here last year, Seneca Wallace, will again be taking the field this time around, as Colt McCoy deals with lingering concussion symptoms imparted on him by James “Headhunter” Harrison over two weeks ago. It doesn’t say much for the Browns’ “franchise” quarterback when Ravens fans would rather face him than the career backup Wallace, who can extend plays much better than McCoy, and had a decent day at M&T last year, going 18/24 for 141 yards and a touchdown.

It was running back Peyton Hillis though, not Wallace, who was the real thorn in the Ravens’ side on that day. Hillis rumbled for 144 yards on 22 carries, and made swiss cheese of the B’More defense. They have held him in check in two tries since then – 35 yards on 12 carries and 45 yards on 12 carries, respectively, during two games in Cleveland. This will be Peyton’s first game back in Baltimore since that big day, so let’s hope it’s not the local crabcakes that are the spinach that turns him into Popeye.

The Ravens’ defense looks to rebound from an absolutely embarrassing performance in San Diego, where they failed to force even a single Chargers’ punt or turnover last Sunday night. They’ll be angry and ready to feed off the energy of the home crowd, so I don’t expect either Hillis or Wallace to have much of any success Saturday. Wallace is no Philip Rivers, and the Browns don’t have anything on their roster resembling the huge downfield threat wide receivers of San Diego. Rookie Greg Little is their leading receiver, and he’s had a season-long case of the dropsies. Lardarius Webb has not been listed on the injury report at all this week, and should be ready to slide back into his starting spot and resume his dominant 2011 campaign. While I don’t think his presence would have made much difference against the Chargers, it certainly couldn’t have hurt to have him playing more than just nickel snaps.

On offense, the Ravens were actually not bad in the first half against the Chargers; the wheels didn’t really start to come off until they were down 24-7. They will look to repeat the success they had against the Browns three weeks ago, when they ran for 290 yards as a team. While Cleveland has improved their run defense a bit in the two games since, holding Pittsburgh and Arizona to 147 and 74 yards, respectively, those teams are ranked 17th and 24th running the ball, and neither has Ray Rice.  The Ravens are a not-overly-impressive 16th running the ball, and while we probably shouldn’t expect another 200+ yard performance, Rice should again be able to break the 100-yard mark Saturday.

The big news out of Owings Mills this week has been that Anquan Boldin will miss the team’s final two regular season games. Boldin’s numbers have been poor over the past several games, but his presence alone affects opposing defenses enough that it could be tough sledding without him. Many Ravens fans are excited about the prospect of potentially seeing rookie Tandon Doss lining up in the slot over the next two weeks to replace Boldin, as the team goes with Torrey Smith and Lee Evans on the outside. I would personally be surprised if Doss sees too much action though; the more likely scenario is that the Ravens run more two tight end/two WR sets, and split out either Ed Dickson or Dennis Pitta into the slot from time to time.

His great toe-tapping sideline grab against Indy notwithstanding, we haven’t seen too much chemistry between Evans and Joe Flacco – certainly not nearly what we saw from the two in a couple preseason games. Now would be a great time for Evans to start to really contribute; the dual speedster threat of Evans and Smith on the outside should open things up underneath for whoever it is that lines up in the slot (not to mention Rice out of the backfield). However, teams have to see that Evans is more than just a decoy – and can actually hurt them deep – to pay him any appreciable level of attention. Look for Flacco to take a shot or two to #83 Saturday – the Ravens need to give the Cincinnati Bengals something to think about when they line up for what will likely be a huge contest in Week 17.

That’s not to insinuate that the Ravens are looking past the Browns. They would be incredibly foolish to do so, as the “overlook” virus has infected them too many times already this season. Hell, it’s the reason they find themselves in their current position, needing to win out to take the division and get a playoff bye, instead of having already locked at least one of those things up. The team knows what they have in front of them, and I believe that going undefeated at home is something they all take considerable pride in. Add to that the fact that this will be the Browns’ third consecutive road game, and conditions are ripe for a blowout. While Cleveland has played two straight close games, they have to be running on fumes at this point. Sure, they’d love to play spoiler to the Ravens, but if B’More can get out to an early lead, it should be a fairly relaxing day at The Vault. The Browns will pack it in and be eager to just get out of town healthy.

And it’s still possible that the Ravens could spend Christmas Eve evening as the AFC North champs, if the St. Louis Rams can go to Heinz Field and beat a (likely) Ben-less Steelers te…hahahahahahaha…yeah, I couldn’t even get through that.

Ravens 27 Browns 10


Ravens (10-3) @ Chargers (6-7)

December 16, 2011

A trip to visit a 6-7 team shouldn’t make a fan base this uneasy, especially one of a team that has rolled off four consecutive wins to position itself on the inside track for the #1 playoff seed in the conference. Even if the Ravens hadn’t already went on the road and laid eggs against such scrubs as Seattle and (ugh) Jacksonville, this trip to San Diego would still feel quite dangerous.

For starters, the Chargers always give the Ravens fits. In recent memory, it’s taken either a great play late in the game to hold them off (2006, 2009), or they’ve just completely trounced us (2007). Add to that the fact that they’re a ridiculous 19-2 under head coach Norv Turner in December, AND that they’ve won their last two games by a combined score of 75-24, and…yeah. This isn’t going to be easy.

Leading up to consecutive 38-14 and 37-10 thrashings of Jacksonville and Buffalo, respectively, in the last couple weeks, San Diego had lost six in a row to pretty much doom their season. They’re still hanging on by a thread though, and with some help, could still sneak into the playoffs. They know they have to win out though, and unfortunately it looks like the Ravens are catching them at pretty much the worst possible time.

Quarterback Philip Rivers is second in the NFL with 17 interceptions – that’s the good news. The bad news is that he hasn’t thrown a single pick in his last three games, while throwing seven touchdowns over that same span. If Rivers is on, and gets in a rhythm, I’m not sure the Ravens have the offensive firepower to win a shootout. The Baltimore defense will have to keep this to a mid-twenties type game at the highest for the Ravens to have a shot. After facing the JV offenses of Cleveland and Indianapolis the past two weeks (and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco before that), let’s hope they remember what it’s like to play an actual NFL quarterback with weapons.

And man, does Rivers have some weapons. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson leads the team with 53 receptions for 952 yards and 8 touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates also has 53 catches, while Malcolm Floyd (who shunned Baltimore last offseason) is averaging 21.5 yards per catch. The Lardarius Webb toe injury could loom large Sunday night. If Webb is unable to go, rookie Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr will see increased playing time. While Smith has all the physical tools to match up against the San Diego receivers, he is still raw and prone to the mistakes that any young player is; he’ll have his work cut out for him. Carr, while a smart player who knows the Ravens’ scheme like the back of his hand, at 5’10” just doesn’t match up in stature with San Diego’s 6’5″ tandem. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said this week that it’s like watching the Los Angeles Lakers take the field when San Diego comes out of the tunnel, they have so much size. Safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard will be counted on to help prevent the big play, but you have to like San Diego’s chances on pretty much any “jump ball” situation.

So how do you help an overmatched secondary? By getting to the quarterback, of course. Fortunately for the Ravens, that’s been their specialty here in 2011, as they lead the NFL in sacks with 45. Rivers is a guy that doesn’t like to get hit, and he isn’t nearly as mobile as say, that big dummy in Pittsburgh. He’s been sacked 30 times, but only five of those have come over the past four weeks. Former Raven Jared Gaither has stepped in the last two games and played surprisingly well, and Terrell Suggs will have to have some success against the guy he used to go up against in practice if he wants to continue his defensive-MVP campaign, while also having a hand in helping his team bring back a win from the west coast. Cory Redding, Haloti Ngata, Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee, and Jarret Johnson will all have to chip in to make Rivers’ life miserable Sunday night.

On the other side, San Diego has managed only 22 sacks of their own, and it’s another former Raven leading the way there – Antwan Barnes has seven of those 22. Baltimore’s offensive line has stepped up as well, allowing only five sacks of Joe Flacco over the past five games, while also paving the way for some of the running game’s best performances of the season. San Diego is vulnerable on the ground, giving up over 128 yards per game (good for 24th in the league). They also struggle mightily on 3rd downs, allowing opponents to convert on 45.9% of tries (31st). If Ray Rice and Ricky Williams can consistently move the ball on the ground and set up third and short situations (though, not TOO short, as we’ve seen lately), and Flacco can hit his tight ends and backs to move the chains, it will go a long way to keeping Rivers and his group of power forwards playing wideout on the sidelines.

While Webb will likely be out of the lineup, the Ravens should get another key piece back when Ray Lewis takes the field for the first time since the Cincinnati win. The team was 4-0 without him, but this is a great time to be getting him back; San Diego knows all too well about Lewis’s ability to diagnose personnel groups and formations pre-snap, and knowing what Rivers plans on doing before he does it could again prove the difference.

The old cliche in the NFL is when you go on the road late in the season, you pack your defense and your running game. While the weather in San Diego isn’t exactly what whoever first said that had in mind, it still holds true. In those aforementioned losses to Seattle and Jacksonville, the Ravens brought their defense but forgot about Ray Rice. Getting #27 on track against one of the poorer run defenses in the league will be the key if the Ravens want to stay in the AFC drivers’ seat.

There is just too much on the line for the Ravens to not put their best effort forward Sunday night. If they lose to San Diego, they revert to scoreboard-watching; not just Monday night when Pittsburgh travels to San Francisco (without James Harrison and HOPEFULLY without Baby Ben), but also if New England and Houston can dispose of Denver and Carolina, respectively, earlier in the day. That would put them a game behind the Patriots and Texans even if the Steelers were to fall to 10-4 as well.

Things just get too messy and complicated with a Ravens loss. Let’s keep things squeaky clean and crystal clear by getting out of SoCal with a victory.

Ravens 24 Chargers 23

Colts (0-12) @ Ravens (9-3)

December 9, 2011

With the Cleveland Browns doing the Ravens no favors in losing to the Steelers on Thursday night, the Ravens will have to do something Sunday that they haven’t done in over a decade: beat the Indianapolis Colts.

Fortunately for the Ravens, the conditions for a win over the horseshoes have never been better. They limp into town as the NFL’s lone winless team at 0-12, and have played the entire season without the second best quarterback to ever wear a Colts jersey, Peyton Manning. They have the league’s 28th ranked defense, 29th ranked offense, and are dead last in points allowed at 29.8 per game. The closest they’ve come to a victory was a 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh (ughhhh, WHY couldn’t it have went the other way?) way back in Week 3. They lost a game 62-7 in New Orleans. They’ve lost games to the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers, and Jacksonville beat them by two touchdowns.

Throw in the Ravens’ perfect 6-0 record at home this season, and there is absolutely no reason for them to not wipe the M&T Bank Stadium turf with Indy carcass all afternoon Sunday.

Ravens fans will be biting their nails of course, remembering back to 2007, when the Ravens traveled to Miami and lost to the then 0-13 Dolphins. Let us not forget, though, that the ’07 Ravens were a train wreck of a team themselves, entering that game at 4-9 and finishing the season 5-11, not nearly the #1-seed contending squad they are here in 2011. No such embarrassment should be on the horizon for this team. A hiccup this week would be completely inexcusable.

While the lack of both Manning and Ray Lewis in this game will make it much less interesting for the casual NFL fan than Colts/Ravens has been in the past, those two are far from the only injury concerns.

Matt Birk and Chris Carr have both missed practice time this week, and will likely be listed as questionable at best. The Ravens have good depth at both positions, though. Andre Gurode stepped in for Birk for a handful of snaps in Cleveland and the line didn’t seem to miss a beat; Gurode looked much better at his natural center position than he had at guard filling in for Ben Grubbs earlier this year. In the secondary, Carr has been the weak link when he’s been on the field anyway. Jimmy Smith, while still prone to the kind of occasional lapse that gave the Browns their only touchdown last week, is getting better every game and has two interceptions. Danny Gorrer has been an extremely pleasant surprise, and has batted down twice as many passes (4) as receptions he’s allowed in 2011 (though he should also have a pick six on his resume from Colt McCoy…come on, Danny – catch the ball THEN run).

One unsettling injury, though, is kicker Billy Cundiff, who missed practice Thursday with a “left calf” injury. If Cundiff can’t go, Sam Koch should be able to handle kickoff duties, and if the game comes down to extra points and/or field goals to beat Indianapolis anyway, something is very wrong.

The Colts have plenty of injury issues of their own. They just placed two cornerbacks on injured reserve this week, Terence Johnson and Jerraud Powers. According to the guys over at Stampede Blue, Powers “was the only corner worth a damn in the Colts whole miserable secondary.” Also going on I.R. was rookie defensive tackle Drake Nevis. Take it away, Big Blue Shoe:

Last night, we got the news that rookie Drake Nevis was also placed on I.R. Nevis has been battling lower back pain all season. Much like Powers in the secondary, Nevis was the only defensive tackle who was playing at a serviceable level for the Colts in 2011.

The Ravens are coming off their best running performance of the season (and in recent memory) against Cleveland, and given the Colts’ injuries along with the fact that Joe Flacco plays much better at home, the Ravens should be able to have their way with the Colts on the ground and through the air. They’ll be looking to break a very dubious streak against Indy; in three career games, John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco teams have yet to score a single touchdown against them.

Here’s hoping that stat gets put to rest early in the first quarter, perhaps on a long Flacco-to-Torrey Smith touchdown strike.

After playing with former Manning backup Curtis Painter for the season’s first 11 games, Indy switched to Dan Orlovsky last week. Orlovsky – as everybody does – looked pretty good against the New England secondary, completing 30/37 passes for 353 yards and two scores. Much of that was in “garbage time,” but it’s still good that the Ravens’ defense has some film on what Orlovsky is capable of.

Chuck Pagano’s defense, the NFL leaders in sacks with 41, should be able to confuse and harass Orlovsky into a much worse stat line than he put up against the Patriots’ 32nd-ranked pass defense. The sacks are coming from all over the Ravens’ D. After Terrell Suggs (10.0), the Ravens don’t have any players with double-digit sacks, but they have four different defensive linemen with at least 3.5 (Cory Redding 3.5, Paul Kruger 4.5, Haloti Ngata 5.0, and Pernell McPhee 6.0). McPhee has been an extremely valuable addition, and looks to be Ozzie Newsome’s latest late-round steal.

If the Ravens are able to get out to a comfortable lead and can pin their ears back on Orlovsky, they could duplicate their 9-sack performance from back on Thanksgiving day. In a close game, though, they’ll have to respect the Colts’ weapons on the outside, receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, and tight end Dallas Clark. Look for Pagano to play a bit conservative on the back end until the Ravens are up by at least a score or two. Quick strikes from Orlovsky seem like the only way the Colts will be able to stay in this one; I can’t see him putting together too many long drives in Baltimore.

The Ravens haven’t had a truly dominant start-to-finish performance since back in Week 1 against Pittsburgh (and, to a lesser extent, Week 3 in St. Louis). While they whooped the Browns from the opening whistle, some stalled drives and missed field goals kept Cleveland in the game much longer than they had any business being so. Hopefully the Ravens can give us fans a nice relaxing game to watch Sunday, with no late-game comebacks like Cincinnati, and those few Baltimore fans who still cringe when they see that blue and white can get a measure of catharsis from watching a thorough beatdown of the “Irsays.”

They’re the best team in the AFC. As the final quarter of the season rolls upon us, it’s time to start (keep) playing like it.

Ravens 31 Colts 6


Ravens (8-3) @ Browns (4-7)

December 2, 2011

The Ravens travel to Cleveland this week for the first matchup of the season with the division rival Browns, looking to avoid another road letdown like the ones that befell them in Seattle and Jacksonville (I’m still OK with the Tennessee loss – they’re a decent team, and damn near “good” with Kenny Britt). They’ve had two emotional wins in a row, with a last minute defensive stand against Cincinnati followed by the HarBowl, but they still find themselves in a dogfight for the AFC North title, despite sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers already. A loss on Sunday could result in the Ravens finding themselves looking up at Pittsburgh on Monday morning, or, best case scenario, in a three way tie with them and Cincinnati at 8-4.

Thus, it is paramount to take care of business in Cleveland against a struggling Browns team.

Fortunately, if  history is any indication, the Ravens will do just that. They are 6-0 against Cleveland in the Harbaugh/Flacco era, including  a 20-10 win last December, a game in which they intercepted Colt McCoy three times, and the only touchdown they allowed was on a trick play.

The Browns enter the game with the NFL’s top passing defense, which is really more due to their 29th ranked run defense than of any particularly spectacular secondary play (cornerback Joe Haden is a beast, however); teams just decide to attack the Browns on the ground, and most have plenty of success doing so. Of course, this is exactly the kind of situation where Cam Cameron seems likely to try to outsmart everyone.

“They think we’re going to run, so let’s pass the ball 40 times.”

Hopefully he learned his lesson after the aforementioned Titans, Jagaurs, and Seahawks games though, all losses in which Ray Rice was inexcusably absent from the offense.

The game time forecast is cold and rainy, another reason for Cam to swallow his pride and grind it out on the ground.

Haden, though he got torched by A.J. Green a few times last week against Cincinnati, is not to be taken lightly. He had six interceptions in his rookie year, and though he has none this season, that is mostly a symptom of opposing teams staying away from him. While Torrey Smith is unlikely to have the same kind of success fellow rookie Green did, he, along with Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans should be able to mix-and-match their formations enough to draw more favorable matchups and keep the chains moving on third-and-long. Joe Flacco is coming off consecutive games with a 100+ quarterback rating and in which he completed at least 63% of his passes, his first back-to-back such performances of 2011. Coincidentally (or not) enough, he also had his two fewest attempts of the year in those Cincy and San Fran games, at 27 and 23, respectively.

The Browns also just lost two starters from their front seven, with linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Emmanuel Stephens being placed on IR last week. The weak run defense gets weaker.

The formula is there – feed Ray, take a shot here or there.

And of course, play defense.

The Ravens are coming off one of their best defensive performances of the season, both in terms of points allowed (6 – best so far) and net yards allowed (170 – second only to Jets game). A Browns attack that is near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every category should find the going quite tough Sunday. Honestly, I can’t see how they are going to move the ball and/or score, aside from going to the trickery well again like they did last December.

The only worrisome element is the return of running back Peyton Hillis. Hillis, befell by the “Madden Cover Jinx” this season, has not been nearly the back he was in 2010, when he ran for over 1100 yards and 4.4 yards per carry. One hundred forty-four of those yards came against the Ravens in Week 3, when Hillis gashed the B’More defense for 6.5 yards a pop. In the rematch, though, the former Arkansas Razorback managed only 12 carries for 39 yards. The Ravens will hope to hold Hillis to a performance that much more closely resembles the latter. He carried 19 times for 65 yards against the Bengals’ stout front last week, and the Ravens will need to keep him contained, lest they find themselves in another trailing scenario.

They’ll likely have to do so without the services of Ray Lewis, who is expected to miss his third consecutive game. On the bright side, Dannell Ellerbe should return to the lineup, and is the perfect candidate to meet Hillis in the hole again and again.

The Browns’ leading receiver is rookie Greg Little, with 47 catches for 495 yards. Little is prone to the dropsies (as anybody who watched that Cleveland-Cincinnati game can attest), but could also become a thorn in the Ravens’ side if they are unable to pressure Colt McCoy as they did Alex Smith a week ago. Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi both average over 12 yards per reception for the Browns.

McCoy, for his part, has improved his play in his second season. While he’s thrown a single interception in eight of 11 games, he hasn’t thrown more than one in any game so far. He’s been sacked 26 times, but is also a threat to take off for a first down, as evidenced by his 185 yards on the ground this year. He is similar in a lot of ways to the 49ers’ Smith though (quick feet, weak arm), so it’s not inconceivable for the Ravens to have similar success.

Cribbs can also be dangerous weapon in the return game, as Ravens fans are well aware. Jerry Rosburg’s unit did a good job containing Ted Ginn, Jr. last week, and they’ve kept the clamps on Cribbs over the past couple year, but they have been shaky overall this season, so hopefully Billy Cundiff can boot a few out of the back of the end zone.

The Ravens are halfway to sweeping the division at 3-0, and the odd thing is that it looks like they might have to if they want to be AFC North champs here in 2011. A loss to Cleveland (either here or in Week 16) will damage their home playoff/first round bye dreams, perhaps irreparably. I think they’ll take care of business, but I doubt it will be pretty or easy.

Ravens 20 Browns 13

49ers (9-1) @ Ravens (7-3)

November 24, 2011

The HarBowl is finally upon us, Baltimore. A game that looked to be a cake win when the schedule first came out is now anything but, as John’s brother and ex-Ravens quarterback Jim has his San Francisco team riding high on an 8-game winning streak. The 49ers can actually clinch a playoff spot with a win on Thanksgiving, quite an amazing feat. The Ravens have a tall task ahead of them, but if they can emerge victorious, they will become the AFC’s first 8-win team.

San Francisco wins with a ball-control offense and opportunistic defense, not dissimilar to the way we’ve seen our Ravens win a whole lot of football games over the past decade-plus. Their offense revolves around their running game and workhorse back Frank Gore. Gore is 7th in the NFL with 840 rushing yards and is averaging a robust 4.7 yards per carry. The Ravens, after getting run over roughshod by Marshawn Lynch in Seattle two weeks ago, seemed to have gotten their run defense back on track last week against the Bengals, holding Cedric Benson to 2.7 yards on 15 carries. Haloti Ngata had a poor game, and appears to be playing at less than 100%. Terrence Cody needs to pick up his game like it looked like he was going to at the start of the season. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Ray Lewis will suit up or will miss his second consecutive game; having #52 on the field, even at less than 100%, will go a long way to slowing down Gore, especially with Dannell Ellerbe once again banged up.

Quarterback Alex Smith has resurrected his career under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. The former #1 overall pick, after six very up-and-down seasons, is playing his best football, throwing 13 touchdowns and only four picks while completing 62% of his passes for 7.2 yards per attempt. He isn’t as mobile as the Bengals’ Andy Dalton, so hopefully the Ravens will have a little more luck in getting their hands on him in the pocket and bringing him down. The pass rush finally showed up when needed most desperately against Cincinnati, but it would be good to see some of Chuck Pagano’s blitzes get home. Tight end Vernon Davis leads the team in receiving, followed closely by fellow first rounder Michael Crabtree. Davis presents the kind of match up problems the Ravens experienced with Jermaine Gresham last week, so hopefully they’ve learned a thing or two from their past mistakes. Problem is, none of the Ravens linebackers can run with Davis, and safety Bernard Pollard is at his best when moving downhill. I’m an advocate of putting the most physical corner the Ravens have, rookie Jimmy Smith, on Davis. Smith showed some good and bad last week, recording his first professional interception and also being torched for a long touchdown. Still, I think he gives the Ravens their best shot against Davis, while Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb try to deal with Crabtree.

On defense, everyone immediately thinks of All-Pro middle linebacker and Ray Lewis heir apparent Patrick Willis. Willis is obviously at the top of his game at the moment, but there are plenty of other playmakers on the San Francisco defense. Fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman roams the inside with Willis wreaking havoc on opposing runners. Former Bengal Justin Smith, who terrorized the Ravens for years with his old club, has 4.5 sacks and has caused two fumbles. Former first round draft pick cornerbacks Carlos Rodgers (5 INT) and Donte Whitner (2 INT) seem to have found their homes in San Fran after somewhat disappointing starts to their careers in Washington and Buffalo, respectively.

Cam Cameron called perhaps his best game of the season against the Bengals, mixing the run, pass, and play action very effectively. The result, as we saw, was wide open seams in the running game and lots of room for rookie Torrey “The Torch” Smith down the field. Smith was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance, and hopes to follow it up with another strong day. After only having the one catch (at least it was a TD) last week, look for Anquan Boldin to see more targets against the Niners. Ray Rice will have his work cut out for him against the NFL’s top run defense, but Cam needs to stick with the running game regardless of its effectiveness. When Rice gets his touches, it gives the Ravens the best chance to win – there is simply no arguing that at this point. The 49ers have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season; I’m betting #27 breaks that streak.

Last week, the Ravens were just 2/6 on third down attempts of two yards or less. That is a pathetic stat that needs to improve immediately, especially against the 49ers and their own eat-the-clock offense. Cam will have to show some creativity – you won’t just pound it straight ahead for 2 or 3 yards against this defense – but the Ravens need a performance more like they had in Pittsburgh, converting third down try after third down try.

Special teams could play a big part in this game as well. 49ers kicker David Akers has connected on 26 of his 31 field goal attempts, with four of his five misses coming between 40-49 yards (he is 5/5 from 50+). Billy Cundiff is 22/28 for the year, but is 13/13 at M&T Bank Stadium. San Francisco punter Andy Lee is averaging 50.1 yards per punt, second in the NFL (Oakland’s Shane Lechler is #1, so maybe it’s something about that Bay Area air?) It will be interesting to see if David Reed is back returning kicks again for the Ravens. They ran only one kick out of the end zone last week, opting to settle for touchbacks on the others. While that’s the safe play, especially after the debacle returning kicks in Seattle, it would be nice to see someone make a special teams play here soon. Even Lardarius Webb looks indecisive and tentative on punt returns.

The 49ers are a formidable club, but the disadvantage they are at with traveling across three time zones on a short week is more than just media hype. While they have bucked the trend so far this year in going 4-0 in the eastern time zone, it will be another feat altogether for San Francisco to push their record to 5-0 in that department against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens have won 10 straight at home against NFC clubs, and are 16-1 against them in Baltimore since 2003 (only loss coming to Carolina in 2006). They are 7-0 at The Vault against the NFC under Harbaugh. It’ll be a good one, but there’s just too much for the upstart Niners to overcome. Big brother beats little brother in the first HarBowl.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone.

Ravens 23 49ers 16

Bengals (6-3) @ Ravens (6-3)

November 18, 2011

Instead of having some breathing room entering this Week 11 divisional clash with the upstart Cincinnati Bengals, thanks to their third road hiccup against an inferior opponent, the Ravens find themselves needing a win on Sunday to avoid falling to third place in the AFC North. As ridiculous as that proposition seemed just two weeks ago after completing a season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s nonetheless the situation this team finds itself in, due to their inability to go on the road and take care of business against the Seattle Seahawks.

As if last week’s debacle didn’t have Ravens fans edgy enough already, the news late Thursday night that Ray Lewis will miss Sunday’s game with a toe injury has only added fuel to the fire of purple angst engulfing B’More. Number 52 will be missing his first start since late in the 2007 season, before John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, or Ray Rice were even members of the organization.

What Ravens fans have to hope will happen on Sunday is that what “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons calls the “Ewing Theory” will take effect. Basically what the idea says is that a team, suddenly devoid of their superstar, will raise their individual games to new heights, in order to – consciously or not – prove to the rest of the league that they can, and will, win without said superstar.

Hell, look no further than the Bengals for a relevant example of this phenomenon. They jettisoned Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, and a 4-12 team is suddenly 6-3.

It’s a lot to ask of the Ravens’ defense to go out and perform at their usual level without their emotional leader and coach on the field out there with them. But their ability to do so may very well – more so than Joe Flacco’s inconsistencies or Cam Cameron’s stubbornness – be the main component in the story of the Ravens’ 2011 season down the stretch.

The “good” news is that inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, sidelined the last four games with a hamstring injury, has practiced fully this week and should be able to go Sunday in Lewis’s stead. Fellow linebackers Jameel McClain and Brendan Ayanbadejo will see their roles increased. Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed will need to carry the emotional torch for Lewis and keep the team and crowd pumped up. You can’t replace Ray-Ray with one man, but the collective unit of the Baltimore defense should be up to the challenge.

They’d better be.

These are obviously not the Cincinnati Bengals we expected to see at the start of the season. They’ve taken a page out of the Ravens’ 2008 script, riding a Top 5 defense and a rookie quarterback into surprise playoff contention. Even when the Bengals are “bad,” they’ve given the Ravens fits, as Flacco and Harbaugh are just 1-3 against Cincy in the last four meetings after sweeping them in back in ’08. Ravens fans were delighted to see perennial thorn-in-the-Ravens’-side Palmer leave town, but Andy Dalton looks like the real deal.

Real deal Bengal

Dalton’s 14 touchdown passes through Week 10 are the most of any rookie since the AFL-NFL merger. Luckily for the Ravens, he may be without his favorite target, fellow rookie A.J. Green. Green, who has hauled in 41 passes for 635 yards and 6 scores, will be a game-time decision with a hyperextended knee. Even if he is on the field, he should be at less than 100%.

Dalton has other options though, including 6’5″ tight end Jermaine Gresham, who is a match up nightmare, Jerome Simpson, and Andre Caldwell, who has given the Ravens problems before. I’m confident in the Ravens’ secondary though, and even more so because rookie Jimmy Smith is expected to see more of the field this week. Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams, Smith, Ed Reed, and Bernard Pollard should be able to handle things on the back end.

What I’m more concerned with is the lack of pass rush we’ve seen recently. The Ravens have just a single sack in each of their last two games, and those were against teams near the top of the league in sacks allowed. Chuck Pagano seemed very Greg Mattison-esque last week in Seattle, opting for coverage rather than blitzes in giving Tarvaris Jackson way too much respect. Dalton can move some, but isn’t near the athlete Jackson or Ben Roethlisberger are, so here’s hoping the Ravens can push the Ginger QB takedown total closer to 4 or 5 on Sunday.

On the other side, Marvin Lewis’s defenses have had Joe Flacco’s number. Since 2009, he has thrown just two touchdowns and nine interceptions against Cincinnati. His main nemesis, cornerback Jonathan Joseph, is now with Houston, though, and the Bengals lost their current top corner Leon Hall for the season last week with a torn Achilles tendon. Joe should be able to breathe a little easier when he drops back and doesn’t see Hall or Joseph, but at this point it’s a matter of “I’ll believe he can play well against the Bengals when I see it.”

For all the talk this week about needing to get Ray Rice the ball more, the Cincy defense isn’t very inviting as a target to do so. They are #2 in the NFL against the run, and trail only the Ravens (3.3 ypc) allowing 3.4 yards per carry. Add that fact to the aforementioned weakened secondary, and the smart game plan seems to be to throw the ball.

Rice, for his part, has had much more success against the orange and black than has his quarterback. He had a streak of three consecutive games with 100+ yards from scrimmage against the Bengals snapped in Week 17 last year, when they held him to 77 yards rushing and 0 receiving. Marvin does a good job taking away Rice as a check down option, which is a big reason for all the interceptions when these two teams meet. Flacco has been more willing to chuck it this year, as opposed to looking for Rice underneath, so it will be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out. Especially if Lee Evans, who practiced again this week, can finally get back on the field. The improved play of the Ravens’ tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, should also help them break down the Bengals’ Cover 2 by exploiting the linebackers in coverage down the seam.

The best way to be sure that Rice gets more touches would be for the Ravens to get out to an early lead, something they’ve struggled mightily to do here in 2011. Last year they led in the fourth quarter of every game. This season they’ve trailed in the fourth in six of their nine contests. Which means they have been fighting to come back from deficits – sometimes big ones – which renders Rice and the running game in general largely impotent.

Score early. Get to Dalton. Force turnovers. Feed the horse. That’s the script that will lead to a 7-3 record and a seat back atop the AFC North.

I’m confident in the Ravens Sunday even without Lewis. They are a completely different team at home, and – as they’ve shown – against “good” opponents. The M&T crowd will be rockin’ after two straight road games, the boys will be eager to prove they can win without Ray, and without David Reed returning kicks and letting the other team play “make it, take it,” the good guys will come out with a convincing win.

Ravens 23 Bengals 13

Ravens (6-2) @ Seahawks (2-6)

November 11, 2011

The Ravens head to Seattle this week to take on Pete Carroll’s squad as well as the famous “12th man” crowd at Qwest Field. The last time the Ravens made this trip, they were smacked around by Matt Hasselbeck (hey, sound familiar?) as Troy Smith made his first NFL start, and I was inspired to write some “Ravens Suck” themed Xmas Carols. That was back in 2007, of course, so lets hope that four years later the results will be markedly different.

Our purple and black look to avoid their third loss of the season to a clearly inferior opponent, after dropping road games in Nashville and Jacksonville. Both of those games, like this one, followed on the heels of huge wins over quality teams. After a big emotional victory like the one last Sunday in Pittsburgh, the team could be primed for another letdown. Since it’s already happened twice this season though, let’s hope they can learn from their past missteps and take care of business on the West Coast.

Seattle has already played the other three teams in the AFC North, falling to all of them. Pittsburgh routed them 24-0 at Heinz Field, the Browns beat them 6-3 in a stinker in Cleveland, and Cincinnati went up to Qwest and pounded the ‘Hawks 34-12. We can’t be the only ones in the division to lose to them, can we?

The Seahawks have shown flashes of competence this season, losing by just two points to the Atlanta Falcons at home in Week 4, then going to the New Meadowlands and beating the New York Giants 36-25 in Week 5. Since then, they’ve lost three in a row though, most recently falling in Dallas 23-13 last Sunday.

On offense, Seattle boasts an explosive running back in Marshawn Lynch. The last time the Ravens faced Lynch – also in 2007, though when he was a member of the Buffalo Bills – they held him to 84 yards on 27 carries (3.1 avg). Marshawn’s once-promising career hasn’t shaped up the way many thought it would when he came out of the University of California, but he’s having a bit of a resurgence in Seattle, averaging 4.1 yards per carry with 4 scores this season. He is, of course, always capable of plays like this one from last year’s playoffs:

The Ravens’ run defense has been stout as always here in 2011, coming in at #3 in the league allowing 86.8 yards per game. Haloti Ngata appeared to be playing hurt in Pittsburgh, so hopefully he will be back close to 100% and his dominating self this week. Terrence Cody and Cory Redding have also been stout against the run, and Ray Lewis is once again defying father time and playing at a high level (Lewis was named 2nd team All-Pro for the first half of the season by Pro Football Focus this week).

It will be interesting to see what game plan the Ravens come out with on offense Sunday. Joe Flacco once again showed his comfort level with the shotgun short passing game last week, not only in the game-winning 92 yard drive, but throughout the game with his great success on 3rd downs. Dallas’s DeMarco Murray was the first runner to break the 100-yard mark against Seattle this season, and they are tied with the Ravens for 2nd in the NFL allowing only 3.4 yards per carry. There isn’t likely to be a lot of room for Ray Rice on the ground, so let’s hope “Good Joe” shows up for the second consecutive week.

Lee Evans practiced Wednesday and Thursday this week, and could return to the lineup for the first time since Week 2. Having Evans back on the field along with Anquan Boldin (the NFL’s leading receiver over the past four weeks) and Torrey Smith (on pace to easily break the Ravens’ rookie receiving record held by Mark Clayton) could definitely help open things up underneath for the running game though. Seattle’s young safeties are two of the top up-and-comers in the game, and Flacco will have to be aware of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas at all times.

The Ravens’ pass rush looks to get back on track after failing to show up in Pittsburgh. Through the season’s first seven games, the Ravens were near the tops of the league in getting to the quarterback, averaging 3.5 sacks per game. However, they only managed to bring Ben Roethlisberger down once. Seattle is the perfect place to get back on track; the Seahawks have allowed 29 sacks, second highest in the NFL. Tarvaris Jackson has been brought down an average of three times per game. Jackson has thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions, so if the Ravens defense shows up Sunday, they should be able to force him into some mistakes and turnovers.

Ed Reed is due for a pick, having not registered an interception since Week 1. I didn’t do the research, but that’s gotta be a personal-high drought for him, right?

The Ravens need to start fast this Sunday, something they’ve failed to do so far this year (Ray Rice’s opening play touchdown in Pittsburgh notwithstanding, of course). They would be well served to take a big early lead, and negate any potential effect the crowd noise (real or artificial) can have on the contest. Don’t give Seattle the illusion that they can hang around. Score early, score often, then pin back your ears and get after Jackson once he is forced to throw to try to catch up, and force some turnovers.

That would be the perfect scenario. As we’ve seen in 2011, though, the Ravens haven’t seemed particularly interested in perfect scenarios. I think they’ll win Sunday, but I don’t think it will be particularly easy or pretty.

Ravens 20 Seahawks 10