Bad Vibes In Ravenstown
Here I go again, turning into Pollyanna.
If it seems like I'm always a Negative Nancy in this space all the time, I suppose it's cause I've been trained over the last 10 years, watching my favorite sports teams lose in big spots. I know the warning signs. It's Pavlovian. I'm like a dog with one of those electric shock collars, who knows exactly where the end of the yard is.
I don't like the vibes my Baltimore Ravens are giving off right now. I sense the danger that this 2011 season, which has looked so promising at times, is set to end in a disastrous, soul-crushing defeat, probably against some team we despise like Pittsburgh or New England. Like the people aboard the Titanic, I just hope there's a lifeboat left before the ship sinks.
I really hope my bad vibes are misplaced and that I can come back in Februay, eat crow, laugh at how silly I sounded in late December and drop $20 on a Super Bowl Champions t-shirt. I truly hope that's the case.
But this team has me edgy for a lot of reasons. Allow me to count the ways:
- This has not been a good road team all year. I had to vehemently disagree with the guys on the NFL Network who said the Steelers needed a first-round bye and homefield more than the Ravens. Certainly, the Steelers would LIKE to have that bye to allow Ben Roethlisberger time to heal his bum ankle and give the team the weather advantage.
But more than any team in the postseason party, the Ravens are a different animal at home. This team just plays better with the crowd at their back. You could make the case that the fans at M&T Bank Stadium have directly affected the outcomes of four games this season (Pittsburgh, Arizona, Houston and San Francisco) just through the adrenaline jolt they give the team.
M&T is one of the NFL's most underrated homefield advantages, not necessarily because the stadium is louder and more intense than other places, but because it's one of the few stadiums where the team feeds off the energy of the crowd to go to a higher level. Especially on defense, the Ravens use the noise and the whole "Seven Nation Army" chant to take them to an almost unbeatable level. And if you don't know, ask 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
On the road however, the Ravens have been an average football team. Even if they win the finale at Cincinnati on Sunday, they would be just 4-4 on the road (8-0 at home). You'd need a team of shrinks to psychoanalyze why the Ravens haven't played well on the road this year, but part of it is that they can't rely on the crowd to give them an energy boost.
I wonder whether this Ravens team can go on the road and win playoff games. We'll find out Sunday, because the playoffs basically start then. The Ravens need just one win to get all they wanted: the AFC North title, a bye to heal nagging injuries (particularly to Billy Cundiff, Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Marshal Yanda) and at least one home game.
To do that, they will have to beat a Bengals team that needs a win to get into the playoffs. Cincinnati will be desperate for sure. If the Ravens lay another egg on the road, as they have in Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego, they will have to start the playoffs on the road again in either Oakland or Denver.
Personally, even without Roethlisberger at quarterback, I think the Steelers could survive and win against either the Broncos or the Raiders. Oakland would be the toughest challenge for whichever AFC North team goes out there because they are tough and physical. Given the Ravens struggles on the road, I'm not sure I like the idea of them flying across the country to face a hard-nosed ball club like Oakland.
The Raiders only go as far as erratic quarterback Carson Palmer takes them, but I like their chances in the postseason more than the Fighting Tebows. Like George W. Bush before him, Tebow should not be misunderestimated. He has a unique skillset, is built like a fullback, and if you keep it close, he'll burn you. But the option offense isn't going to fly against veteran defenses like the Ravens or Steelers. Denver is a run-first team, and as Detroit, New England and Buffalo have showed, if you can stop the run, build a lead and make Tebow a pocket passer, the turnovers will come.
- Speaking of erratic quarterbacks, Joe Flacco everybody!
There's a lot on the line for the Unibrow this postseason. He wants a big, long-term contract and carrying the Ravens to the Super Bowl is where Flacco can earn it. The problem is, can he do it? Not playing like he has this year he can't. If you're looking for a symbol of some of the Ravens' inconsistencies this year, look no further than the guy taking the snaps.
The Ravens are going to need Flacco to carry them, not just in the postseason but this Sunday as well. Good teams are going to take away Ray Rice and take their chances with Flacco. He's shown in the past that he's capable of leading this team to wins in big games. For the 'Brow, he has to put together the best, most consistent four games of his life starting this Sunday.
If Flacco is accurate, confident and sure in these next four games, the Ravens can go places. If he's throwing balls six feet over his receivers' heads, if he's throwing picks or if he's fumbling, the Ravens will be done like dinner.
- The formula for beating this Ravens team is out there and it goes like this:
Play them anywhere but M&T Bank Stadium
Run the ball enough to keep them honest
Get the ball out of your quarterback's hands quickly
Pressure Flacco heavy and often
That's the formula that has been practiced by Tennessee, Seattle, Jacksonville and San Diego and it's worked like a charm. Two of those teams (Tennessee and San Diego) really made the Ravens defense look bad, thanks to accurate quarterbacks and at least one top notch, tall, wide receiver. San Diego had two tall receivers and a quarterback that looked like he was in the Ravens defensive huddle all night.
- Speaking of which, the San Diego game left a bad taste in everybody's mouth.
It wasn't just that the Chargers killed the Ravens and then the next week looked like the poorly coached, .500 team that they are against Detroit. It was how they made them look bad. The Ravens couldn't rush the passer, the couldn't cover, they couldn't block, couldn't tackle, couldn't complete passes and couldn't kick. Other than that they were fine.
It was disorienting to see the Ravens look that bad on a national stage against an opponent that wasn't exactly the Green Bay Packers.
Adding to the bad taste of San Diego was the almost-as-rancid taste left by Sunday's game against Cleveland. The Ravens looked good from the start, playing well in the first half in building a 17-0 lead.
But the offense fell asleep in the second half, the special teams gave up a touchdown and the Ravens had to hang on to beat a bad football team. It was an unfortunate reminder of Ravens teams from the past two years that have had trouble finishing games. Not finishing games is what cost the Ravens the Super Bowl last year.
- The occasional butterfingers of the Ravens receivers.
Memo to Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Lee Evans, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta: catch the ball. Dickson and Smith have been the biggest offenders at times this year, but Boldin has also dropped balls in big spots (remember the dropped touchdown pass in Pittsburgh last year?).
Catch the ball boys. You don't want to be run out of town on a rail like Travis Taylor, Clarence Moore, Mark Clayton and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were for dropping balls in big spots.
- If the Ravens can't get a consistent pass rush Sunday in Cincy and in the playoffs, they're done.
I said it after the loss to Seattle that the Ravens corners are only as good as the pass rush and that was borne out for everyone to see against San Diego. If the Ravens can't get to the passer, then good quarterbacks are going to expose Cary Williams, Chris Carr and particularly rookie Jimmy Smith. Williams and Smith had a looooong night against Phillip Rivers in San Diego.
If the Ravens can get pressure on the quarterback consistently, they can go a long way. But if not, the Ravens are dead the first time they meet up with a good quarterback.
Like I said before, I really hope to eat crow on this one. I'm not a hater, just saying, I don't like the way this team has looked heading into the postseason. Prove me wrong lads.