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Will Ravens Return to Playoffs In 2014

With a 5-4 record, the Baltimore Ravens head into tomorrow’s contest against the Tennessee Titans at M&T Bank Stadium with their backs up against the wall and in a must win situation.

In the unfamiliar position of being in last place in the AFC North, coaches and players will lead you to believe the old cliché that in order for the Ravens to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, they must not dwell on their current position in the standings or, their consecutive losses to divisional foes, Cincinnati & Pittsburgh. Instead, they must focus on wining the play, the quarter, the half and eventually one game at a time.

If the Ravens playoff chances were based on winning games one quarter at a time, they would be headed back to the post season. So far in 2014, the Ravens have won every quarter, outscoring the opposition by 29 points in the first qtr. 19 points in the second and 19 in the fourth and final quarter. The only quarter the Ravens have lost in 2014 is the third. Thanks to 22 points scored by Pittsburgh last Sunday night, the Ravens have been outscored by just one point in the third quarter this season, 47-46.

The Ravens have been 5-4 on one other occasion during the John Harbaugh era. In 2009, the Ravens were 5-4 and even dropped to 5-5 before finishing the season with a 9-7 record. That was good enough for a Wild Card playoff berth that year but in a very tough AFC this season, nine wins is likely to be one—possibly two short of what is needed to play in January.

Throughout franchise history the Ravens have been 5-4 on two other occasions and made the playoffs both times. After starting 5-4 in 2003 and with journeyman Anthony Wright filling in at QB, the Ravens finished 10-6 before losing to the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs. In 2000, the Ravens went five games without scoring an offensive TD and following a Week 9 home loss to the Steelers, fell to 5-4. There was no indication of what was to come but somehow, behind QB Trent Dilfer, the Ravens found enough offense to match the play of the greatest single season defense in NFL history. They won their final seven regular season games and four more in the playoffs, including a 34-7 rout of the NY Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

The difference between those three seasons and this one is how the Ravens faired in divisional play. In 2000, with five divisional opponents, the Ravens were 8-2 in the AFC Central, which at the time included the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. Following realignment in 2001, the purple and black finished 4-2 in the AFC North, which looks today like it did 13 years ago.

Even though there is nearly half of a season to play, the Ravens have already played five of their six divisional games. With a 2-3 record in North play, they have not done as well as they hoped. Only once in divisional play from 2001 until 2010 did a team lose three or more games and make the playoffs. You guessed it, the Ravens lost three times in divisional play in 2009 but managed to still make the playoffs as a wild card. But, having been swept by Cincinnati and dropping one of their two meetings with Pittsburgh, the Ravens find themselves in a must win situation in nearly every game for the rest of the 2014 season—especially the final one of the season against Cleveland.

Recent history suggests losing three or more games will not eliminate you from the playoffs either, especially if you’re the Bengals. Cincinnati has made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons finishing 8-10 in divisional play during that span. Cincy went 2-4 in the division in 2011 and followed that up with two consecutive 3-3 marks and still made the playoffs. In fact, they won the division last year with three losses.

This season is different and a big reason why it is unlikely a team from the North will make the playoffs, or at least win the AFC North with three or more division losses is everybody in the division has at least five victories with the Steelers and Browns owning six wins apiece. In previous seasons, you could count on the Browns to be the Browns. In other words, Cleveland was only expected to win no more than five games for the entire season. The last time the Browns won their sixth game in any year was following a wild and crazy 33-30 overtime game against the Ravens in Week 11——OF THE 2007 SEASON!

The Steelers, who have posted consecutive 8-8 seasons and missed the playoffs in back to back seasons, didn’t win their sixth game until Week 15 last year and Thanksgiving weekend the year before. The Ravens and Bengals have a cautionary tale to tell to their first place divisional foes. The Browns are Steelers are tied for the top spot and are the third and fourth teams in the division to occupy the top spot in just the last two weeks. The Ravens were all alone atop the division heading into their game in Cincinnati two weeks ago and now sit in last place. The Bengals occupied the spot after beating the Ravens and now sit in third place.

With just one game to play in the division, a final week showdown at M&T Bank Stadium against Cleveland, the Ravens, by their own doing, can only sit back and watch the Browns, Bengals and Steelers play each other and hope that divisional cannibalism takes over. So far—- so good. The Browns took a big bite out of the Bengals on Thursday night handing Cincinnati its first divisional loss of the season.

Cleveland (vs. Cincy & @ Balt) & Pittsburgh (vs. Cincinnati) each have two divisional contests to play while the Bengals have three games (2 vs Pitt & @ Cleve). There are a 1,000 different scenarios that could emerge from just those five games. The problem is that the Ravens can only directly have an effect on the outcome of one of those games and while it may be a big one—one can only hope the Ravens have done their part until then to make it worth their while to win the game.

The division has just 13 losses in 2014 and eight of them have come at the hands of each other. The AFC North is 7-1-1 vs their cross over division this year, the NFC South. The only loss was the 1-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers somehow beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Bengals tied the Panthers 37-37 in a thriller on Oct 12.

So the big question that remains is will the Ravens return to the playoffs, where they went for the first five years of head coach John Harbaugh’s tenure in Baltimore. Or will they miss the postseason for the second consecutive year for the first time since missing the playoffs consecutively in 2004 and 2005?

There is certainly a case to be made for both and what makes the Ravens so maddening at times is some of the reasons they could miss the playoffs are the same reasons they could also return to the post season. Here are the top reasons why the Ravens will or will not make the playoffs in 2014:

The Secondary:

There is no doubt this could be the biggest and most obvious reason why the Ravens miss the playoffs. The Ravens do not have the luxury of losing two more times in 2014 and still have at least two “elite” signal callers they face on their remaining schedule. Currently, the Ravens pass defense ranks No.24 allowing 263 passing yards per game to opposing signal callers. Only Drew Brees and Philip Rivers remain as proven threats and one of those games are at M&T Bank Stadium. With a suspect secondary, the Ravens may even have to be wary of a red hot Ryan Tannehill and Brian Hoyer, who passed for 290 yards against them in Week 3.

This week the Ravens learned that their top cornerback, Jimmy Smith, who has been out with a foot injury since early in the Bengals game two weeks ago, will require surgery on that foot and is out for the year. The loss is profound to say the least. Smith had been targeted just 39 times and allowed 20 catches for 163 yards and no touchdowns in eight games this season. Smith also had one interception, eight passes defended and 28 total tackles. He lined up against the league’s best every week and shut down great WR’s like AJ Green, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown (the first time) and TY Hilton. Without one of the league’s top DB’s against the Steelers, the Ravens allowed 340 passing yards and six touchdowns.

As a result, the team announced a major shakeup this week when they cut cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown. The Ravens were awarded cornerback Danny Gorrer off waivers from the Detroit Lions and promoted rookie cornerback Tramain Jacobs from the practice squad to the active roster. The good news is Gorrer returns to Baltimore where he was on the Ravens’ practice squad in 2010 and was later promoted to the active roster. He had a strong game against former Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes in a 2011 game. Gorrer was cut by the Ravens prior to the 2012 season. He remains familiar with the system, as the Lions even used some of the same verbiage in Detroit that defensive coordinator Dean Pees uses in his play calling.

As for Jacobs, he recorded 55 tackles, 13 pass deflections and two interceptions during two seasons at Texas A&M after the Louisiana native transferred from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. At 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, Jacobs ran the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds at his campus Pro Day workout, where he also had a 32 1/2 inch vertical leap and a 9-6 broad jump. He played well for the Ravens in the preseason. Jacobs was the team’s third leading tackler in the preseason and had one official pass defended.

The bad news is that Goerr steps in and becomes the starter and Jacobs will be taking his first NFL regular season snap. But if you’re the Ravens your hope is that it can’t get much worse than allowing opposing QB’s to compete 18 of 29 passes for 219 yards and a 112.1 passer rating two touchdowns in just four games. That was Dominque Frank’s stat line.

Lardarius Webb must become a better cover corner than he’s shown in 2014. Injuries aside, Webby must step up. According to Pro Football focus, his -7.6 grade this year is the poorest amongst all Ravens cornerbacks

Speaking of poor grades, at the safety position, the Ravens simply must get better play from Matt Elam, Will Hill and Darian Stewart. Elam has the worst PFF grade of the season with a dubious -10.6 showing. The frustrating part is watching the lack of communication coupled with the obvious lack of preparedness. Film study used to be given at the Castle or in the living room of No.52 or No.20 but its obvious more is needed. Ed Reed wasn’t a great athlete but he was one of the smartest. In Reed’s 11 seasons, the Ravens allowed 19 completions (tied for the eighth-fewest) and eight touchdowns on passes that traveled at least 40 yards in the air. Since his departure, 25 games— the Ravens have given up 12 such throws (most in the NFL in that span) and six touchdowns (tied for the most).

JOHN HARBAUGH & JOE FLACCO:

Harbaugh & Flacco keys to how the season ends

Harbaugh & Flacco keys to how the season ends

In some cases, fan bases can make a claim that their team should have a better record than they actually do—this is one of those instances and the fan base is correct in believing that the Ravens should be 7-2 instead of 5-4. With all things being equal, the only two games this team should have lost was Week 1 vs. Cincinnati and last week in Pittsburgh.

John Harbaugh & Joe Flacco also represent one of those situations I warned you about in that they could be a part of that same reason the Ravens make the playoffs—or they could be just as big of a reason they miss them. On the surface, the pair are 37-19 in the months of November, December and January during the regular since their arrival together in 2008. At home, the pair are nearly unbeatable losing just 10 times in 52 regular season games. On the other hand, they both seem to make those boneheaded decisions and plays that simply will not allow you to throw your full support behind them. This in turn makes you wonder and despite the impressive cold weather stretch drive records, will they make the right coaching decision or make the great play in crunch time during the next seven games.

On two occasions this season, Harbaugh decided to go against the best conventional wisdom when it comes to playing on the road, which says, “Take the points whenever you can”. Trailing 3-0 in Indianapolis during a Week 5 contest the Ravens drove 11 plays and 82 yards to face fourth and 1 on the Colts 3 yard line. Instead of allowing Justin Tucker to chip the ball through the uprights tying the game, Joe Flacco was sacked on the 12th play and lost 11 yards turning the ball and momentum back over to Andrew Luck and the Colts No.1 ranked offense.

Two weeks ago on the road in Cincinnati it became apparent that John Harbaugh simply doesn’t understand the value of taking points whenever you can get them—especially on the road. After winning the coin toss and deferring the ball to the home team Bengals, who drove 80 yards for an opening drive TD, the Ravens answered by driving 89 yards on 17 plays— But the 18th play of the drive was fourth and goal from the one yard line. Harbaugh gambled again and once again lost. Joe Flacco threw an incomplete pass to Kamar Aiken just inside the end zone and the Ravens would eventually lose the game 27-24. The play occurred on the Ravens first drive of the contest, so there were plenty of opportunities to make it right but the point is we’ll never know because the Ravens failed again to take the easy three.

The fact that this continues to be a problem is amazing and when you consider that Harbaugh should have learned this lesson last season it becomes even more amazing to fathom. With one more win last season the Ravens would have made the playoffs. That win should have come in Week 6 at home vs. the Green Bay Packers. The Ravens had five shots from the Packers 8 yard line to score a TD. Following three straight Ray Rice runs from the Packers four, which netted three yards the Ravens elected to go on fourth and one from the one. RB Bernard Pierce was stuffed by the Packers Micah Hyde and Mike Daniels and the ball went back to Aaron Rodgers. Eight plays, nearly 60 yards and almost four minutes of clock time equaled NO POINTS!

You can appreciate the “gutsy” play calling all day long but the Ravens lost that contest 19-17 and finished the season 8-8. You don’t have to be a math wizard to see that three points could have won the game—maybe. Things happen  but In a year when 9-7 would have been enough to make the playoffs, that decision along with the two this year become head scratching and worthy of high criticism.

Harbs and Flacco have four remaining home games on the schedule and are 20-6 at the Bank during these months that matter the most. Flacco is on pace to pass for 4,200 yards and 28 touchdowns—both would be career highs. But he does have those lapses in judgment that drive a fan nuts, such as the interception vs. the Steelers last week. When Flacco & Harbaugh have bad games together, you get Cincy and Indy. Aside from the poor decisions to not take points, Flacco completed just 54 percent of his passes in those games and threw 0 TD’s while tossing 3 INT’s. They are the only two games this season Flacco does not have TD pass in. The Ravens forced four Colts turnovers but still could not come away with a win.

The argument for Harbs and Joe Cool is their collective work over their almost seven seasons together and it is a valid point. One Super Bowl Ring, five straight trips to the playoffs, three AFC Title games and a 57-38 regular season record and 9-4 in the playoffs. The duo are amongst the winningest coach and QB tandems in NFL history through six seasons. But (and isn’t there always a but) living in the past is a dangerous thing to do in the NFL. Just ask a Steelers fan the last two seasons. Since signing his big $120 plus million dollar contact, Flacco and Harbaugh are 13-12.

In all fairness, Harbaugh has been the right man in terms of leading this team in overcoming adversity. He was the perfect selection to replace the arrogance of Brian Billick and he was the perfect guy to replace the “Summer Fun Camp” mentality that Billick employed. Coming from a tough hardnosed football family, John Harbaugh was going to succeed in the NFL —that was almost a predetermined fact.

His quality leadership traits have shown up during every critical juncture of his tenure.  Whether you like how the Ravens organization handled the Ray Rice fiasco or not, the fact is, Harbaugh was perfect in how he sheltered his team from the media and controversy while thrusting his face and voice in front of the cameras. He was the right man in 2012 when the Ravens won their second Super Bowl. He led the team through an October mutiny that nearly upset the balance of power he created and he led the team perfectly down the stretch and into the playoffs that season without its franchise leader, Ray Lewis, who missed most of the regular season with an injury. He led his team after firing its offensive coordinator with just three games to play. He made them believe and he will make them believe again. Whether or not they have the talent at the necessary positions is another story.

If the Ravens are going to make the playoffs, Harbs next big challenge will be winning on the road and helping Dean Pees manage the secondary. The Ravens are 4-9 dating back to last season and cannot afford to lose more than once the rest of the season if they want to all but guarantee themselves a playoff spot. Baltimore will travel to play the Saints, Dolphins and Texans to complete their 2014 road slate and are a collective 15-6 as a franchise against those teams. Harbs is 15-11 away from M&T Bank in the months of November, December and January during the regular season and 25-28 on the road overall since becoming head coach.

If the Ravens are going to make the playoffs, Flacco & Harbaugh must be on top of their games the rest of the way. No unnecessary gambling by either one—because doing so puts a lot in jeopardy, including possibly Harbaugh’s job this season if they don’t make the playoffs. That may sound rough and nobody is perfect but the margin for error is shrinking by the quarter and with only 28 to play in the season, the Ravens, starting with these two guys, need to make them all count.

10-6 MAY NOT BE GOOD ENOUGH:

Finishing 11-5 would give the Ravens about a 90 percent shot at making the postseason. However, 10-6 may not be good enough, at least for both Wild Card teams. Last season, the Arizona Cardinals, who own the NFL’s best record through nine weeks at 7-1, were the league’s only team to win 10 of their 16 games and watch the post season from home. It happens from time to time in the NFL and 2014 is likely to be the third straight season a 10-6 watch the playoffs.

With the way the AFC is playing, it is possible that two 10-6 teams stay home this year. Currently, 11 of the conferences 16 teams have at least five wins. Houston has four wins and is very much still in the hunt. With 8 weeks to play, every team in the AFC North has at least five victories, while three of the four teams in the East & West divisions can boast the same claim. In the East its New England (7), Buffalo (5) and Miami (5), while out West, Denver (6), Kansas City (5) and San Diego (5) are all legitimate playoff teams. download

Since the addition of the sixth playoff team and besides the Cardinals last season, Chicago (2012), Cleveland (2007), Kansas City (2005) and Miami (2003) all missed out on the post season with 10-6 records. It’s very rare that two 10-6 teams miss the playoffs. In fact, it’s only happened twice. One year after adding two additional playoff teams, the Eagles and 49ers both missed the playoffs with 10-6 records in 1991. The last time it happened was in 2010 when the NY Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers missed the mark with 10-6 finishes.

In fact, in recent NFL history, one 11 win team has missed the playoffs and the Ravens had a part in making that happen. In 2008, the New England Patriots missed the playoffs with an 11-5 record. The Ravens owned the tiebreaker with a better conference record. The Ravens were 8-4 in conference play as New England went 7-5. The Pats became the first 11-win team since the expansion to a 12-team playoff in 1990 to not make the playoffs, as well as only the second team (after the 1985 Denver Broncos) since the NFL expanded to a 16-game regular season in 1978. This came just one year after finishing with the only 16–0 regular-season record in NFL history.

The bad news is the Ravens are currently 11th in the AFC. The Steelers are officially listed as the AFC North division leaders because they have a better winning percentage in common games. Aside from the Steelers, New England, Denver and Indianapolis are your other division winners. Cleveland and Buffalo currently hold the final two Wild Card spots. There is more bad news. The Ravens are 2-4 vs. the AFC this season while everyone except Buffalo (2-3) has at least four conference wins in the books.

There is light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t a freight train at the moment—in other words, there is some good news. The Ravens have six games to play AFC opponents and four of them are at home. The good news keeps rolling in because of the six teams that sit in front of Baltimore in the playoff race that are not division leaders, the Ravens will play three of them. San Diego (10th) and Cleveland (5th) will visit M&T Bank Stadium while Baltimore will travel to play the Dolphins. The Ravens are 3-0 under John Harbaugh with Joe Flacco under center at Sun Life Stadium, including a 26-23 win their last season. The Ravens are 4-4 in South Florida all time as a franchise.

Finishing the season as the 2000 team did seems like a very tall order. Other than not losing another game, realistically, the perfect scenario, would be to finish 6-1 with the one loss, if it must happen, coming in New Orleans. Anything other than that and the waiting game, as well as scoreboard watching is on as you walk the malls during the holiday season. In a season when points are at a record in high in the league, it’s not out of the question that two 10 win teams could stay home in January. Let’s hope the Ravens aren’t one of them.

STEP UP:

If the Ravens are going to make the playoffs, they will need their veteran free agents and some of their first and second year players to step up in crunch time. During the Ravens recent run of playoff success, which ended last season, we watched as players such as Ray Rice (2008), Paul Kruger (2009), Danell Ellerbe (2009) Dennis Pitta (2008) and few others make significant contributions. Last week vs. Pittsburgh, it was that mix which allowed the Steelers to overpower Baltimore by 20 points. Thirty six year old James Harrison, who retired and returned this season devoured the Ravens offensive line, as he recorded two more career sacks of Joe Flacco. On offense, fifth year WR Antonio Brown’s playmaking was no fun to watch as he torched the Ravens for 144 yards and one TD and even though Le’Veon Bell wasn’t effective from a yardage standpoint, he made critical first downs.

Can rookie RB Lorenzo Taliaferro step up for a tiring Justin Forsett

Can rookie RB Lorenzo Taliaferro step up for a tiring Justin Forsett

On offense the Ravens have players that make occasional plays but no consistent play-makers. Steve Smith Sr. is as close as it gets for the Ravens but he’s 35 and in the last two games vs. the Steelers and Bengals, Smith caught just 8 balls for 73 yards and no touchdowns. He does have nine third down conversions this season, which leads the team. But when Smith Sr. has a bad game, the Ravens pass offense seems to disappear for stretches. Torrey Smith appears to be lost. His route running is suspect and looks confused at times. Torrey Smith has five third down conversions which is one less than TE Owen Daniels who has stepped up nicely. But if you compared the Ravens offense in terms of player’s vs players to the rest of the AFC North, the chips do not exactly fall in line.

Whether you agree or disagree these rankings, they aren’t far off. Joe Flacco is the second best QB in the division behind Ben Roethlisberger but throwing to the third best wide receiving corps. The Ravens also appear to have the third best set of running backs behind Bell and Blount in Pittsburgh and Bernard and Hill in Cincinnati. The numbers will balance that out more as the year progresses but it is hard to imagine Smith Sr., Daniels and Justin Forsett picking up steam as the season wears on. The Ravens top 2 free agent pickups are a combined 67 years old.  At 29 years old, Forsett is just five carries (113) shy of matching the most amount of carries (118) he’s ever had for an entire season.

To ensure their sixth trip in seven seasons to the playoffs, someone other than CJ Mosley must emerge as a potential perennial Pro Bowler of the future. The Ravens have not drafted a Pro Bowler on offense since selecting Rice in 2008. On defense, the last Pro Bowler selected was Haloti Ngata in 2006. Better and more consistent play is needed from RB Lorenzo Taliaferro and at least one of the pass catchers, Kamar Aiken, Michael Campanaro or Crockett Gilmore. Last year it was Marlon Brown and it could be again if he can find his purpose in the new Gary Kubiak offense.

In the end—it doesn’t’ matter who steps up for the Ravens—all that matters is that someone does. If I were forced to bet on whether or not this team will be playing in January I’d say yes, they’ll be there. After all, it will most assuredly require the Ravens to overcome some adversity to make it and based on what I know about this team (see 4th and 29, see Denver playoff game, see Ray Rice situation, see Ray Lewis injury) and how they view obstacles, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were back in the Super Bowl.

 



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