The Baltimore Ravens in many ways have become 2013’s cardiac kids. Nine of their 14 games have been decided by 3 points or less, during which the Ravens are 5-4, winning 4 of their last 5 such contests.
Their 8 wins are by an average margin of victory of 7.9 points and their 6 defeats by an average score of 5.5 points, even with the opening night waxing in Denver.
None of this matters going forward. What does matter is that the Ravens can navigate a clear path to the playoffs without help from anyone else. They just need to beat New England and Cincinnati and if they do, get ready to host a playoff game Baltimore!
Getting to the playoffs is one thing. Winning will take a bit more consistency on both offense and defense. But that said the AFC is wide open. Over the past couple of weeks division leaders Denver, New England, Cincinnati and Indianapolis have all had an opportunity to make a move and improve their playoff seeding. None have improved and now of the four only Denver and Indy have locked up a playoff berth.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, things are beginning to feel familiar. The dramatic win over the Vikings feels like 4th and 29 in San Diego. Six field goals by Justin Tucker inspired flashbacks to Matt Stover and the 2000 season.
Now the Ravens seem to be getting it together. A team that all along had aspired to play its best football in December but was dismissed by many national pundits and buffoons like Michael Irvin and Warren Sapp, is suddenly riding a four game winning streak.
And you know what, it still feels like they’ve yet to play their best football.
Here’s my Good, Bad & Ugly as of Week 16…
- Special Teams are playing well across the board and influencing field position. Sam Koch seems to have awoken from an early season slump and Justin Tucker has been lights out. Jacoby Jones looks fresh and energized.
- The offensive line, the team’s Achilles’ Heal, is playing better and while the running game is not what they hoped it would be in December, it’s moving in the right direction. Pass protection, particularly from Gino Gradkowski has improved as well.
- Joe Flacco is unflappable and despite some in-game lapses he rallies in crunch time. He’s battle tested in the playoffs and as his resume expands, he’s learning how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – a must have quality in the postseason.
- Despite the recent slump from Torrey Smith, the receiving corps inclusive of tight ends is improving. Jacoby Jones is playing his best football as a receiver while Marlon Brown hardly looks like a rookie. The return of Dennis Pitta cannot be overstated and Ed Dickson is playing much better as of late.
- Haloti Ngata was a one-man wrecking crew in Detroit. He looks fresh, healthy and primed for a playoff run.
- Arthur Jones is playing well, perhaps driven in part by the big payday that awaits elsewhere in 2014.
- Elvis Dumervil seems to be awakening again after a 2-game skid thanks to an ankle injury that fortunately is on the mend.
- Daryl Smith has slumped a bit defending the run but has been solid in pass coverage. He has set a team record for passes defensed by a linebacker and leads the team with 3 interceptions.
- The secondary is quickly becoming the defensive strength of the team. You would be hard pressed to find a better tandem right now than Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith and now rookie safety Matt Elam is coming on, particularly when defending the run. James Ihedigbo’s physicality will force opposing receivers to keep their head on a swivel and it could disrupt timing routes.
- Other than Ray Rice’s nagging injuries and Joe Flacco’s knee, the Ravens may be as healthy as they’ve been all season, a huge advantage.
- The running game is still struggling. Ray Rice’s injuries are dragging him down and his patience, vision, burst, speed and change of direction skills have gone with it. Bernard Pierce needs to pick up the pace. This isn’t all on the offensive line any more.
- Flacco has shown more aggression as a ball carrier this season when opportunities present themselves. Unfortunately that sprained MCL to his left knee will curtail that, particularly since his tuck leg during his slide will be fitted with a brace.
- Vonta Leach has hit the field only a tad more for the Ravens than Lorenzo Neal, Sam Gash or Ovie Mughelli in 2013.
- WHERE’S SIZZLE? Terrell Suggs has disappeared. After a great start to the 2013 season he has slumped considerably, even as an edge setter when defending the run. Six straight sackless games.
- The Ravens sure could use a well-designed screen pass in their playbook. Jim Caldwell’s version looks like electric football.
- The fourth quarter defense needs to improve and get off the field when clinging to a small lead. It has been a season-long issue.
- RESTLESS ROOKIES…Outside of Matt Elam and Marlon Brown (undrafted) the rookies have made very little impact. Arthur Brown looks lost way too often; Brandon Williams and John Simon barely see the field and as of late neither dresses on Sunday. Heck if I had a beer for every impact play most of these guys have made in 2013 I’d be practicing what the Most Interesting Man in the World preaches.