It’s Not Going To Be Easy, But Here’s How The Ravens Make The Playoffs

After watching the Bengals sweep Pittsburgh yesterday, it occurred to me that the Ravens losses have been to Cincinnati, and at New England and Minnesota. Maybe they’re not really that bad, they’re just not elite. And we’ve all seen teams that were not considered elite sneaking into the playoffs and then going deep into January (actually, that would include last season’s Ravens). Having given it due consideration, the Ravens still have a path to the postseason, but it’s a narrow path. Here’s the way I see it:

These things are a given: The Patriots will win the AFC East, the Bengals will win the AFC North  and the Colts will win the AFC South. Either the Broncos or the Chargers will win the AFC West.

What’s still fuzzy are the two Wild Cards. Here are the teams still in the picture: NY Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Houston and the loser of the AFC West race. Of those seven, I’m going to dismiss the Jets and the Dolphins out of hand. [Rex Ryan & Tony Sparano quietly leave through the door in the back of the room.]

Jacksonville and Houston, both 5-3, are facing games against San Francisco, New England, Indianapolis and each other. Both are unexpectedly in contention, and I suspect that at least one of them will succumb under the weight of late-season pressure. However, I also expect the AFC South survivor to earn one of the two Wild Card berths.

The loser of the AFC West race, either Denver or San Diego, each now with three losses, will very probably finish with six or seven. The Ravens have beaten both of these teams, and so have the first tiebreaker, effectively eliminating a threat from the AFC West.

This leaves the real threat to the Ravens’ Wild Card chances, the detested Steelers. The two haven’t met yet, and if one team sweeps the other, that will likely be enough to get that team into the playoffs. This is obviously true of Pittsburgh, which only has three losses, but it is also true of the Ravens, and here’s why:

If the Ravens win the games they’ll be expected to (Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland) that’s eight wins. That leaves two games against Pittsburgh, plus Indy and a visit to Green Bay. Baltimore needs to win at least two of these games, in addition to the others. Of these four, because of the power of the tiebreaker, the two games against the Steelers mean more than matchups with the Colts and the Packers. In other words, beating the Colts and Packers will not mean as much to the playoff math as will the Steelers’ games.

(Of course, if the Ravens lose to the Browns tonight, I will quickly and politely escort them to that door in the back of the room.)

It must be galling to Rex Ryan to have lost to Jacksonville in the way he did. Rex has spent every minute since he arrived in New York talking about a new culture epitomized by defensive toughness. The defensive “genius” imported Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard to jump start that new culture, and now, a defense that looked so good early on is costing him games the Jets should have won. I guess getting away from football for a week didn’t solve all of the Jets’ problems, and now the rookie head coach will have to try and get inside the heads of the head cases he encouraged. I suspect Ryan will become less and less mouthy as the season wears him down. Lesson: Don’t make yourself a target until you’re sure you can deflect the arrows. Didn’t Rex learn anything from watching his Dad’s example?

Isn’t it amazing how excellent Ravens’ linebackers fade into obscurity once they leave the team? And we’re talking about players who were supposed to be game-changers with their new teams. Let’s see, there’s Jamie Sharper, Edgerton Hartwell, Adalius Thomas and now Bart Scott. Am I forgetting anyone?

Watching Tom Brady take apart the Colts last night gave me hope for this Sunday; of course, the Ravens aren’t the Patriots. I’m also pretty sure Peyton Manning is going to light up our secondary. The Colts’ defense is so much weaker without Bob Sanders, it’s amazing. It’s kind of the way the Steelers suffer without Troy Polamalu. I’m starting to consider strong safety the most second most important position in the NFL. By the way, I put that loss entirely on Bill Belichek, the new spokesman for Bad Idea Jeans.  His decision to go for the first down on his own 30 yard-line has to be one of the riskiest moves in recent memory, and it rightfully blew up in his face. Think about this – if Mark Clayton catches that pass, the Pats might be sitting at 5-4.

Trying to handicap the NFC makes my head hurt. The Giants and Falcons  are awesome, the Giants and Falcons suck. The Cowboys are a joke, the Cowboys are pretty good, the Cowboys suck. The Cardinals and the Panthers are pathetic, the Cardinals are going to run away with their division and the Panthers are beating some pretty good teams. The Packers are average, good, terrible, beating Dallas. Come to think of it, maybe the Ravens should play in the NFC…

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Ravens Post Mortum: Silver Linings and Prioritizing Offseason Needs

Now that we can safely put the lid on any legitimate hopes of the Ravens appearing in the postseason, it’s time to look for silver linings, and to begin thinking about what the Ravens need to address first in the off seson.

This season will be remembered as a time of transition for the team. For the past ten seasons, the Ravens were all about defense. The main job of the offensive unit was to not get in the way while the angry, opportunistic defense annhilated opponents. No more.

Now, in what seems like a “back to the future” turn of events (“back” being the Vinny Testeverde-era Ravens and “future” being the Joe Flacco-era Ravens), the offense needs to score 30+ points if the team is going to win.  The defense can no longer be counted on for key stops, especially when faced with a quality quarterback. This season has been instructive in that it has mercilessly exposed the Ravens’ weaknesses, and has given the front office solid evidence of what needs to be done. I’ll address those needs shortly. But first, there are some silver linings in what is quickly becoming a very disappointing fall:

1. The NFL is a quarterback league. If an organization is to have long term success, it almost always builds its team around a franchise quarterback. For the only time in its short history, the Ravens have that in Joe Flacco.

2. The Ravens have usually done well playing a third or fourth place schedule, coming off of a bad year. Next season should be better.

3. With every loss, the Ravens draft position improves.

4. As expectations fall, the agony of losing winnable games lessens, mainly because we begin to subconsciously redefine what “winnable” is for this team.

5. As it becomes clear that future home games will have no bearing on the playoffs, the chances of buying a reasonably-priced Ravens ticket from a disappointed season ticket holder improves. (This is really the only way I’ve ever been able to see a game since the new stadium opened.)

Now, on to the needs assessment.

1. A quality pass rushing down lineman. It’s no secret that the Ravens secondary can’t cover quality receivers, and they’re not just one player away, either. The fastest, easiest way to paper over a weak secondary is with an effective pass rush, which the Ravens haven’t had in years. They’ve tried to compensate with equally ineffective blitzes, which, when picked up, just results in one-on-one coverage and big plays. With just one monster pass rusher, much of the poor secondary play would fade away.

2. If that monster pass rusher can’t be had, the Ravens must act to upgrade the secondary, because this unit is absolutely killing the Ravens. They don’t cover, tackle or create turnovers very well. Ed Reed, limited by chronic neck and shoulder pain, is so busy trying to compensate for his mates that he’s forever out of position, which just exacerbates the problems. Samari Rolle’s career is over, Domonique Foxworth has proven to be no better than a nickle back and neither Fabian Washington, Frank Walker nor Chris Carr would start anywhere else in the NFL. LaDarius Webb seems promising, but it’s too early in his rookie season to tell. This group needs a major overhaul.

3. A playmaking wide receiver. Now that the Ravens have a franchise quarterback, they need a receiver that can consistently win deep battles to take advantage of his talent. Right now, Mark Clayton is the closet thing the Ravens have to a “burner,” and that by itself is a statement. Derrick Mason will likely retire at the end of the season, which makes this need even more pressing.

4. A dependable placekicker. Oh, Father Time, why did you have to take Matt Stover? For over a decade, this was one position that the Ravens never had to think about. But last year, it became apparent that if the Ravens needed a 44-yard field goal outdoors, Matt Stover couldn’t get it done. Steve Hauschka seemed like the answer, but now it seems as though he develops an ugly case of the “yips” when under pressure. The Ravens need a new answer in a position that delivers points every week. (What are the “yips?” Click here.)

5. A dominating inside linebacker. This is another position the Ravens haven’t had to think about since, well… ever. But Ray Lewis can’t go on forever, and even now he’s showing signs of advancing age. It was hoped that Jameel McClain or Tavares Gooden would step up this season, but that hasn’t happened. Within the next year or two, the lack of an enforcer in the middle of the defense is going to become glaringly obvious to opposing offensive coordinators. The Ravens need to be proactive to make sure that day never comes.

6. A quality kick returner. Chris Carr has been a major disappointment, and LaDarius Webb seems destined for full time duty in the secondary. The Ravens have tried to use Ed Reed occasionally to provide a spark, but this is a dangerous tactic, considering Reed’s questionable health, his importance to the defense and how thin the secondary is on talent.

What do you think?