CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Emotional chords have dominated conversations surrounding today’s football game, a natural preoccupation considering the extreme contrast in the Baltimore Ravens and the Carolina Panthers’ circumstances.
The Ravens (6-3) are steaming mad, angry after a frustrating setback last week at the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons.
And the injury-riddled, reeling Panthers (1-8) are clinging to one primary motivating factor heading into this game: a critical intangible.
“I think we’re just playing for pride,” Panthers middle linebacker Jon Beason said. “I think we can finish strong and people can say, ‘Hey, you know what, this team had a lot of character. They showed a lot of pride, and they never quit.’”
And the Ravens will be guarding against any potential letdown against a team that has virtually nothing at stake.
They have no intentions of making the mistake of underestimating the Panthers even though they’ve has lost their past three games in a row, have the worst offense in the league statistically in terms of yards, points and passing.
Not to mention the Panthers are starting journeyman Brian St Pierre at quarterback today.
“I think it’s a pride thing, you don’t want to get beat,” said veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason when asked what makes the usually hapless Panthers potentially dangerous. “There comes a point in time as a team where you’ve got to put up a fight and you’ve got to draw a line in the sand.
“That’s what makes a team dangerous when another team comes in and thinks they’re going to walk all over them or bully them. That team is thinking, ‘You know what? This is our opportunity. This is our chance to draw a line in the sand and fight.’ I think that’s what makes a team dangerous when everyone else is counting them out.”
The Ravens are 14-1 against teams with losing records in the John Harbaugh era, but nearly faltered a few weeks ago during an overtime win over the Buffalo Bills.
Since Harbaugh took over, the Ravens have won seven consecutive games following a loss.
“Every game is important in this league, our guys understand that,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think it’s anything we’re doing as coaches. There’s no pep talk or anything like that.
“We’ve got mature guys, leaders, and you have to win every game. They all count the same. We need to win.”
Tied for first place in the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens are well-positioned to compete for a playoff berth for their third year in a row.
They’ve never won a regular-season game against Carolina, losing all three previous games against the NFC South franchise with the most recent defeat four years ago in Baltimore.
The Panthers are struggling by any objective measure.
They’re scoring only 11.6 points per game. They’re averaging just 250.6 yards of total offense. And they’ve entrusted their starting quarterback position to a guy who was a stay-at-home dad until last week and has thrown a grand total of five NFL passes.
“You never fool yourself,” All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “They’re going to fight. They have a lot of pride over there and a lot of young guys who have a lot of talent. So, they’re definitely going to come out and give us their best shot.
“It’s still the NFL. Every team is going to come out and give you 100 percent. I know you try to get up for the teams who are always winning, but I try to always tell the guys: ‘Make sure you’re getting up for every game because every team is going to get up for us.’”
The Ravens have been plagued by slow starts on the road all season, scoring only one field goal in the first quarter in road games and being outscored 37-27 in the first quarter overall.
One way to dishearten the Panthers would be to score early and establish that this isn’t going to be a competitive game.
“That’s something we need to do,” Harbaugh said. “I want to start fast. You guys made a big deal about it Monday. To me, it’s obvious and goes without saying. We want to come out of the gates.”
The Ravens, though, have had trouble finishing off teams in the fourth quarter, allowing Matt Ryan to engineer a game-winning drive with his touchdown pass to Roddy White last week.
The defense has fallen to 10th in the league after finishing third overall last season.
The Ravens have given up 1,471 passing yards over the past five games, but have managed to win three of those contests.
They’ve given up at least 290 passing yards in four of the past five games.
Still, this is the Panthers.
They’ve only scored nine touchdowns, the fewest in the league.
And they’ll have to go with St. Pierre today under center.
He has mustered just a dozen career passing yards and was as surprised as anyone when Panthers coach John Fox tabbed him as the starter over rookie Tony Pike with Jimmy Clausen out with a concussion.
"I know what the situation looks like to everyone," St. Pierre said. "It is what it is. I’m not going to complain about it."
The Ravens’ defense, specifically defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, has drawn criticism for being conservative this year.
They intend to test out St. Pierre and see what kind of competitive mettle he has since he’s an untested quarterback in eight career seasons.
If there’s any intimidation factor afoot, it will involve the Ravens bringing blitz pressure to try to rattle St. Pierre.
“Yeah, it’s possible,” outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “Everybody’s human. It doesn’t mean every rookie you can intimidate and it doesn’t mean that every vet you can’t. It all depends on who they are as a person and who they are as a competitor.”
The Panthers have surrendered 27 sacks, so they look extremely vulnerable against a Baltimore pass rush that displayed signs of improvement last week when outside linebacker Terrell Suggs sacked Ryan twice.
Mattison made it abundantly clear that the Ravens will be coming after St. Pierre.
“I think anytime you have a young quarterback, now you want to pressure more,” he said. “Now you want to see, ‘How seasoned is he?’ and ‘How sharp is he?’ When you have a great quarterback or their scheme is to get the ball out, you’re putting a lot of people in harm’s way. If you’ve got a younger guy, you want to go after him. That’s for sure.”
The Ravens were only about to locate 37 snaps, including the preseason, to compile a scouting report on St. Pierre.
“You just do the best you can.,” Harbaugh said. “It’s what we had.”
The Ravens aren’t counting on scaring St. Pierre into submission, but they’re certainly going to attempt to strike a little fear in his heart.
“It’s always possible to rattle anybody,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “You can’t bank on the rattling. You can’t bank on, ‘We’ll do this and we’ll do that and get him off his game.’
“You’ve got to bank on going out there and not messing up your assignments and doing the things we’re supposed to do and playing the way we’re supposed to play. It’s a business trip and we’re looking for a win.”