Schedule could help Ravens salvage season
The Baltimore Ravens have myriad problems as they enter the backstretch of the 2017 season. Their offensive line, greatly reduced by injuries, cannot block consistently. The lack of protection has hindered an already embattled quarterback and limited the team’s scoring output. In turn, that lack of production has placed even greater stress on a defense that relies heavily on contributions from well-aged players, generally a sign that a downward turn awaits.
But while those problems would sink most teams with such issues, the Ravens might survive thanks to a highly favorable slate of games to close out 2017. If they hope to turn their season around, it must start with taking care of business against these meager group of opponents.
When the Ravens return from the bye, they take on the Green Bay Packers. Once an NFC frontrunner, the Packers have not won a game since Aaron Rodgers suffered his likely season-ending collarbone fracture. Replacement Brett Hundley has looked far less than stellar in relief of the two-time MVP, struggling with basic responsibilities of the position like identifying wide-open receivers and trusting his protection in the pocket. The Packers could notch their first Rodgers-less win on Sunday against the similarly destitute Chicago Bears, but a Baltimore team fresh off the bye should make easy work of this non-contender and improve to 5-5.
The Ravens catch another break with the timing of their matchup with the Houston Texans. Two weeks ago, the defense would have to find a way to slow down dominant rookie signal-caller Deshaun Watson. However, Watson will miss the rest of the season while recovering from a torn ACL, leaving the forgettable Tom Savage to hold the fort until 2018. Savage has produced just one touchdown pass in four starts, and against Baltimore’s capable pass defense he might not throw another. Meanwhile, Houston’s defense has already lost field-tilting pass-rushers J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. If the Ravens’ last appearance in primetime — a 40-0 beatdown of the Miami Dolphins in Week 8 — serves as any indication, they should have a shot at back-to-back wins for the first time since the opening weeks of the season.
The schedule grows more difficult after those two highly winnable matchups. The Ravens play host to the Detroit Lions, a flawed but dangerous team with one of the league’s better quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford. The game takes place at M&T Bank Stadium, which should negate some of the Lions’ talent advantages. Baltimore can afford to lose against Detroit, but it would effectively eliminate all remaining wiggle room in the AFC playoff hunt.
Week 14 brings a challenge the Ravens must hurdle: their second matchup with the AFC North-rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers seem well on their way to another division title, but the game could make a significant difference in regards to the wild-card tiebreakers. At present, the AFC’s leaders for the wild-card berths — the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills — each hold comparable or superior in-conference records. For the Ravens to stay alive, they likely cannot afford to lose another game inside the AFC.
The rest of the schedule shapes up favorably for Baltimore. The team travels to face off against the currently winless Cleveland Browns and then finishes up with a two-game homestand against the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals. By that point in the year, the Colts might well have tuned out head coach Chuck Pagano and resigned themselves to a playoff-less fate. The Bengals seem a better bet to bring some punch given the divisional rivalry, but Marvin Lewis’ hold on the team has dwindled as the team has sunk further away from playoff contention. The Ravens, who could still have a shot at a postseason berth, should have the motivation needed to emerge victorious in those tilts.
The Ravens don’t need to “run the table,” but they need to come close to make a playoff berth realistic. That might appear unattainable for a team that has more multi-game losing streaks than winning ones, but the lineup of opponents doesn’t present so many challenges as to completely shut the door on the possibility.
Moreover, the Ravens have much to gain by clawing out of the morass to earn a trip to the postseason. Head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome have come under fire over the past few years, and a playoff berth would go a long way towards silencing those critics. The same holds true for quarterback Joe Flacco, long a punching bag for the NFL punditry due to his massive contract and diminishing returns. The trio — essentially the nucleus of the franchise since 2008 — could extend their stays in Baltimore or see the end approach quickly depending on how the final months of the 2017 season unfold.
A trip to the playoffs would cover up their flaws nor the issues across the Ravens’ roster, but it would go a long a long way towards restoring confidence in the team’s leadership.