A win this Sunday. That’s all. After 16 weeks, it comes down to this. The Ravens are playoff bound, but need to either win this game or have the clearly improbable take place – a Steelers loss in Cleveland – to get their first home playoff game since January 2007. Given their performance on Christmas Eve against an overmatched Browns team, I’m not exactly brimming with confidence.
The Ravens started out strong and then took their collective feet off the necks of the Browns. In the end they needed a rookie mistake by a Browns’ defensive lineman Phil Taylor, who was tricked into blowing a snap count on 4th and 2, to give the Ravens 4 fresh downs and seal what had become a nail biter.
For all intents and purposes, the playoffs begin for the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday. So much is at stake now and, for me, its worrywart time.
v Special Teams: I wrote last week that special teams play has generally improved over the past 6 games, but on Sunday they regressed, allowing Josh Cribbs to return a punt untouched for a touchdown. Bennie Thompson brought up a good point in an article earlier this week in the Sun. The Ravens have very few dedicated special teams players. Everybody has a dedicated position on offense and defense and special teams play is an add-on. Is this the problem? Maybe so, maybe not. But starting this Sunday we need consistent play from all parts of this unit.
v The Defense: The defense generally played well against a quarterback (Seneca Wallace) who can run, pass, and improvise. That said, Haloti Ngata has not been the same since his thigh injury, Terrell Suggs is getting double and triple-teamed, Ray Lewis is still working himself back into shape, and Ed Reed is perfecting a new tackling technique: Body blocking a ball carrier with his side. All of this has exposed the secondary, particularly the corners.
v Joe Flacco: Joe had an up and down game against the Browns but I’m not sure it’s all his fault. Once we got up by 20 points and the injuries started to accumulate, it seemed that the coaching staff put the breaks on and went conservative. I hear comments from non-Ravens fans all the time to the effect that, “Flacco is not your guy.” I’ll say it again: I’ll reserve judgment on that as long as Cam Cameron is the offensive coordinator. If they bring someone else in (like a Norv Turner) and there’s no improvement, then we have an issue.
v Wide Receivers: Anquan Boldin is out until the playoffs and Lee Evans has morphed into the Invisible Man. Ed Dickson is maturing into a fine tight end but I’ve given up counting his dropped passes. Dennis Pitta can catch but can’t block. Who woulda thunk that, at this point, Torrey Smith would turn out to be the Ravens go-to receiver as well as a long ball threat? Ditto for running back Ray Rice who caught the longest pass last Sunday.
I’m finished with the rant. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’m worrying too much. Hope so. I’m also hoping we hear that long “OOOOO!!!!!” during the National Anthem indicating that several thousand Ravens faithful made it to the Queen City.
NEWS & NOTES FROM THE RAVENS & AROUND THE LEAGUE
v News Item: From ProFootballTalk.com: “To celebrate the first 8-0 home season in franchise (the Baltimore version of it) history, the Ravens will be giving a game ball to the fans. In lieu of buying footballs for every season-ticket holder, the team instead will present specially-made balls to three randomly-selected fans.”
v My Take: It’s a nice gesture but meaningless – and a little cheap. If the Ravens really want to do something for the fans, reinstitute training camp at McDaniel College where fans, young and old, and particularly those who don’t hold season tickets, can meet and greet the players. In the best spirit of command and control management, Harbaugh & the Front Office have effectively isolated the team from their fan base. I bet you won’t see the Packers or Steelers do this. Nice touch, guys. Keep the footballs, please. Give us back Westminster.
v News Item: This Big Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. During the preseason, Rex Ryan guaranteed a Jets Super Bowl win. Last week he boasted that his Jets were a more talented team, a better coached team than their cross-town rivals the NY Giants. He further boasted that he was going to take over and own New York. Then his boys went out and got blasted, at home, by the Giants, 29-14. Instead, as a NY columnist put it, Ryan got owned. Rex doesn’t do humble pie very well.
v My Take: Rex is still pissed off that Steve Bisciotti didn’t select him to replace Brian Billick as head coach. Fond as we were of Rex, knowledgeable Ravens fans knew why. Now the whole country does.
v News Item: Former NFL Head of Officiating and current Fox Sports analyst Mike Pereira called out former NFL head coach and current MNF Analyst Jon Gruden for failing to understand NFL rules. Pereira called Gruden a “loudmouth” coach who “constantly disrespected” officials and who is a “blowhard” in the broadcasting booth who “spouts off when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” (Tell us how you really feel, Mike) In this case it was the rules concerning hits on defenseless receivers.
v My Take: Well said and something long overdue. Too bad Pereira couldn’t comment on Gruden’s wise-cracking, smarmy interviews with players and draft picks on Sports Center, and his tendency to crawl up the butt of every NFL G.M. and team executive with his gushy, non-offensive remarks during games. With as many as 7 or more potential coaching vacancies in the off season some club will hire this gas bag maximus; then he can go back to abusing the ears of side judges instead of ours.
The Vegas Line opened at Ravens -3 against Cincinnati and has held steady all week. Frankly, I’m surprised at the size of the spread given the Ravens injuries, their ineptness on the road, and the new-found Bengals karma. The weather is not expected to be a factor. This game has to worry Ravens fans, but there’s cause for hope. The Ravens seem to play up or down to the level of their competition. The good thing is that if we play down to the Bengals, we won’t fall very far. It will be a close, hard-fought win.
Ravens 20 Bengals 17
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
See you at M&T Bank on either January 14th or 15th.
Note: All stats courtesy of NFL.com, additional content from the Baltimore Sun, New York Post, FoxSports.com, and ProFootballTalk.com.