Analysis  

 

Baltimore Ravens riding wave of momentum toward playoffs

Torrey Smith was just like everyone else Monday night, watching Justin Tucker line up for a 61-yard field-goal attempt with the Baltimore Ravens' season on the line. Unlike everyone else, Smith is a wide receiver for the Ravens, a team that has been as inconspicuous and unassuming as possible for a defending Super Bowl champion while -- somewhat against type -- becoming the NFL's high-wire act. So even as Joe Flacco handed the ball off to Ray Rice for a short run up the middle on third down, Smith was unfazed by how tenuous the Ravens' shot at victory -- and a firm spot in the playoff chase -- seemed.

"I wasn't nervous or surprised," Smith said this week. "We were in Tucker's range. He's kicked longer than 64 in practice outside."

Ho hum. Tucker's kick, of course, barely tumbled over the crossbar just inside the right upright, a razor-thin success for a team that has become adept at tap dancing on the edge of disaster, carving out a narrow zone in which it leads the league in resilience. Exactly one year ago, the Ravens were in the midst of a miserable December, losing four of their last five regular-season games before staggering into the playoffs. Being forced to go to work on wild-card weekend, then going on the road against the top-seeded Broncos and scrapping for the AFC title in Foxborough was apparently the right dose of strife for the eventual Super Bowl winners, belying the idea that the most dangerous teams are the ones that enter the playoffs with momentum.

This year, however, the Ravens have momentum -- though they still need a little bit more of it -- and might again be the most dangerous team in the playoffs, provided they make it. The Ravens have won five of their past six games, salvaging a season that began with a 3-5 start. Monday's victory over the Lions was a microcosm of the Ravens' entire "you-can't-kill-them" year. Nine of Baltimore's games have been decided by three points or fewer, including the frenetic three-point victory over Minnesota two weeks ago in which the teams alternated touchdowns in the final 2:07, with Flacco connecting on the winning score with four seconds left.

After that one, coach John Harbaugh noted that playing close games makes teams tougher, putting "calluses on your psyche and your character," he said.

"I agree 100 percent," Smith said this week. "You're watching on the sidelines -- no one's facial expression changes. It's, 'Yeah, we been there. OK, let's go do this.' "

The Detroit victory kicked off a perilous three-game stretch of matchups with division leaders. This week brings Tom Brady's battered Patriots, who are coming off a loss in Miami on Sunday, and who historically have a harder time with the Ravens than they do with most other teams -- see Baltimore's win over New England in last January's AFC Championship Game.

There are several scenarios that would put Baltimore in the playoffs. The most incredible is this: If they win their final two games, including the regular-season finale against the Bengals, the Ravens would capture their third consecutive AFC North title. That is remarkable because the Ravens are, on paper at least, a middle-of-the-road team. While they seem to possess a bottomless well of grit, it is difficult to pinpoint what they do exceptionally well on the field, or what has improved to spark the turnaround.

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Baltimore averages just 3 yards per rush, the second-worst mark of any NFL team since 2000. Flacco is completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes while coughing up 17 interceptions. On passes that travel at least 21 yards in the air -- an area in which he was particularly successful last season -- he has a completion rate of 25 percent, with one touchdown and three interceptions. Baltimore is ranked 29th in red-zone efficiency; remember that they beat Detroit with six field goals and nothing more. The defense remains the strength of the team -- it is the fourth-best red-zone defense in the NFL -- but it is not in the same neighborhood as the top units fielded by the Panthers or Seahawks. The Ravens have just one sack in their past three games combined. They're struggling to get pressure with the front four and have developed a maddening habit of giving up fourth-quarter touchdowns.

Even Smith, who ranks fifth in the NFL with a 17.5 yards-per-catch average, and who will complete his first 1,000-yard season, can't quite isolate what has changed.

"The same way we won these close games, we were losing them earlier this year," he said. "If we win some of those, we're not even having this conversation. All the games we lost, except for the one to Denver, were the same. It's not like something changed in coaching or scheme. It's just about us closing games. We have a lot of guys who have been through tough situations, who have overcome adversity during games."

Much of the Ravens' earlier struggles were self-inflicted. The offensive line was a mess, hampering the running game. Flacco, without longtime veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded to San Francisco in the offseason, had his interception trouble. And tight end Dennis Pitta missed the first 12 games with a dislocated hip. He has already been targeted 16 times in the two games since his return; once his timing with Flacco is back, he should help the Ravens on the underneath routes and in the red zone, and to open up the deep game for Smith.

"He's a huge weapon for us," Smith said. "He's Joe's security blanket. He can go across the middle. We've been trying to go deep all year. We just missed earlier than we have in the past few weeks. We had a lot of success last year doing that. We want to get back to it. We've been stalling in the red zone. We've been relying on getting into the red zone, whereas we used to break off a big one and score. We are still far from where we need to be."

Their apparent destination, though, is starting to look familiar. So is the treacherous route they're taking to get there.

"When your back is against the wall, it's a defense mechanism. You've got to fight," Smith said. "We're not the types to give in, regardless."

Here are 10 other things to watch on a weekend in which just three games have no realistic playoff implications:

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1) Can the Saints end their road woes against one of the league's best defenses and take control of the NFC South? Drew Brees has thrown less than half as many touchdown passes on the road (11) as he has at home (23). He's also given up more than twice as many interceptions outside of the Superdome (seven) as he has within it (three). The Saints' offensive line neutralized the Panthers' pass rush in the teams' first meeting this season -- a 31-13 Saints victory in New Orleans, in which the offense had 373 yards and Brees was sacked just twice (the Panthers average 3.3 sacks in their other games). Brees has been sacked 30 times, the most in any season of his career, and the Panthers are second in the league in sacks, with 45. This week, New Orleans coach Sean Payton named a rookie, Terron Armstead, as the starting left tackle against the Panthers. The Saints are 3-4 on the road, where they score an average of two fewer touchdowns per game. Their offensive pace has slowed since the start of the season; New Orleans has scored 23 or fewer points in five of its past seven games. Carolina's defense is ranked third in the red zone, where the Saints' offense ranks 18th. The winner of this game controls the chance to win the NFC South and snare the NFC's No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

2) In the Drama Duel, can the Cowboys recover from their collapse against the Packers to stay alive in the NFC East? The Cowboys are 1-6 in elimination games since Tony Romo became the starting quarterback in 2006. But they've also beaten up on bad teams this season (the combined record of the seven teams the Cowboys have defeated is 35-62-1) -- and the Redskins definitely qualify for that group. Washington has lost six in a row, starting quarterback Robert Griffin III has been shut down amid controversy, and a stream of leaks to the media have indicated Mike Shanahan does -- or does not -- want to leave, and owner Dan Snyder might -- or might not -- want him gone, but does not want to pay the remainder of Shanahan's contract. The Cowboys would be eliminated with a loss and an Eagles win over the Bears. One big factor will be how Dallas' 32nd-ranked defense handles Washington's third-ranked rushing game.

3) How much can Kirk Cousins boost his trade value against the league's worst passing defense? Dallas allows nearly 300 passing yards per game -- more than the Saints' historically bad defense last year -- and has allowed six 300-yard passers this season. In each of his two career starts in place of Robert Griffin III, Cousins has thrown for more than 300 yards, including a career-high 381 yards against Atlanta last week.

4) What do the Eagles do if the Cowboys win earlier in the day? Their game against the Bears would have no implications for the Eagles if the Cowboys beat the Redskins, because a Dallas victory would mean the NFC East will be decided in the final week of the season, when the Eagles and Cowboys square off. Chip Kelly said he will play his starters regardless -- and if that's the case, the Bears' league-worst rushing defense will have to contend with Philadelphia's top-ranked running game and the league's leading rusher in LeSean McCoy. But let's also remember that the Eagles' defense got shredded for 48 points and 475 yards by the Vikings last week, and the Bears average nearly five more points on the road than they do at home. This is Jay Cutler's second game back for Chicago after dealing with ankle and groin injuries. The Bears can clinch the NFC North with a victory, provided Detroit loses or ties and Green Bay falls earlier in the day. The Eagles have won their past three games against opponents with records of .500 or better.


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5) Will the Packers stay alive for another week? After Aaron Rodgers got hurt, the Packers went on an 0-4-1 skid, then won their past two games by a combined two points -- including the 23-point comeback last week against the Cowboys. In the NFC North, the Packers are now a half-game back of the Bears, whom they play on the final day of the regular season. With Rodgers ruled out again on Friday, this week's game against Pittsburgh should come down to the run. The Steelers' rushing defense, which is ranked uncharacteristically low at 19, has yielded 100 or more rushing yards to four players this season. The Packers' Eddie Lacy has four 100-yard games, including last week's 141-yard effort, but the team's rushing average has dropped from third in the league when Rodgers was playing to 17th without Rodgers. Since Week 5, Lacy has averaged 88.8 yards per game, third in the league in that span.

6) Can the Dolphins keep Ryan Tannehill upright and avoid cooling off? Miami, which can get into the playoffs by winning its final two games, gets a lucky scheduling break in the form of two inexperienced quarterbacks playing for teams that have already been eliminated: Buffalo's Thad Lewis and the Jets' Geno Smith. The bigger question is how the Dolphins' offense will perform; they've scored at least 23 points in their past three games after not scoring 23 in any of their previous six. Tannehill's 23 touchdown passes are the most by a Dolphins quarterback in a single season since Dan Marino was playing. But he has also been sacked 51 times -- the most in the league -- and the Bills lead the NFL with 49 sacks. Tannehill was sacked twice and intercepted twice in an October loss to the Bills.

7) Does Rex Ryan make a strong enough case to keep his job? The Jets were eliminated from playoff contention when the Ravens beat the Lions on Monday night. New York's last two games -- starting with Sunday's matchup with Cleveland -- might serve as a referendum on Ryan. The Jets have missed the playoffs for three seasons in a row, marking the longest such drought since the early and mid-1990s -- the dreaded Coslet-Carroll-Kotite era. Ryan is 40-38 overall as coach of the Jets, who appear to have regressed from earlier this season. New York has scored 20 or fewer points in four of its past five games. Since Week 6, Geno Smith has been the worst statistical quarterback in the league, ranking last in completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns. With a general manager in John Idzik who recently arrived on the job and an owner, Woody Johnson, who has been strongly supportive of Ryan in the past, Ryan's fate is anyone's guess. The Jets' secondary, a weak point all season (pass defense is ranked 26th), could face a test from the Browns' ninth-ranked passing offense.

8) Can the Cardinals stay in the playoff race by becoming the first team this season to beat the Seahawks in Seattle? Both the Cardinals and the Seahawks have won six of their past seven games. This could be strength versus strength: the Cardinals' top-ranked rushing defense versus the Seahawks' second-ranked rushing offense. Of course, Arizona's opponents have run just 35.1 percent of the time, while Seattle runs 52.7 percent of the time. Carson Palmer has thrown 17 interceptions, third-most in the league, while the Seahawks have 22 interceptions, most in the league. This is a must-win game if the Cardinals want to stay in the playoff mix. A win or tie by the Seahawks clinches home-field advantage.

9) Will the Bengals rebound from a sleepwalking loss to hold on to their playoff chances? The Vikings -- the Bengals' opponents -- stunned the Eagles with an offensive explosion last week, but the Bengals are 6-0 at home and have scored at least 40 points in their last three home games, a franchise first. Cincinnati still ranks in the top 10 in most defensive categories, despite losing critical personnel to injuries. A victory and a Baltimore loss or tie gives the Bengals the AFC North title, while a victory and a Miami loss or tie gives the Bengals at least a wild-card berth. The Bengals host the Ravens next week in what could be a winner-take-all game.

10) Will the 49ers head into the playoffs looking more and more like the team that came within inches of winning Super Bowl XLVII? San Francisco, which has a chance to clinch a playoff spot Monday against Atlanta, has won nine of its past 11 games, including a four-game winning streak during which Colin Kaepernick has thrown seven touchdown passes and one interception. The San Francisco defense has allowed an average of just 13.1 points per game since Week 4 -- the best in the NFL in that span -- and is the only unit allowing less than 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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