Friday, December 11, 2009

Can the Ravens make the playoffs?

Probably not ...
About two weeks ago, I assessed the Ravens' chances to make the playoffs and came up with the astute proclamation of "definitive, absolute probably." A home win over the Steelers and a road loss to the Packers later, I have to downgrade that evaluation to about 25% and if they do get in, their chance to advance is about 10%. Tackling the first part of that statement, the Ravens almost certainly have to win the remaining games on their schedule: Lions, Bears, at Steelers, at Raiders. Since none of those teams have .500 records or upper echelon quarterbacks, that seems entirely possible.

Assuming they win out and go 10-6, the Ravens have to count on either the Jaguars (7-5) or Denver (8-4) to stumble down the stretch. Baltimore wins a tiebreaker with the Broncos, but Jacksonville's 6-2 conference record leaves the Ravens out if both teams end up 10-6 because the Jags AFC record would then be 9-3, which Baltimore can't reach from its current mark of 6-4. Jacksonville has to play Miami, Indianapolis, at New England and at Cleveland. There's also a chance that the Patriots go 10-6, lose the AFC East tiebreaker to the Dolphins but win the tiebreaker with the Ravens because they beat Baltimore earlier this season. And I haven't (and won't) consider the prospect of tiebreakers with the 6-6 Jets or Dolphins.

So, lots of pieces have to fall into place. Tactically speaking, I'd like to see the Ravens run the ball more. A lot more. Flacco is clearly struggling, and if pounding opponents with a running game worked last season, it should work even better with a more experienced Ray Rice and a strong offensive line. If McClain is healthy, give him the ball 10 times. He looked very good against Pittsburgh. Ditto for McGahee, 10 carries. Keeping Ray Rice at his season average of 15 carries per game, that gives you 35 running plays plus the occasional end around to Clayton or Troy Smith, who has carried nothing but a clipboard this season. Granted, that's about 10 more running plays than the Ravens are averaging this season, but it would go a long way towards taking pressure off of Flacco and might help sell some play action passes. Other than that, Flacco needs to take some more shots down the field, to the point where he throws the ball away to the deep sideline instead of quickly checking down to Rice or Heap as he seems to have done more often of late.

On defense, the Ravens have to keep blitzing and live or die with the results. The DBs have to stop grabbing every receiver that runs through their zone. All year long, they have gotten beaten by good QBs (Manning, Palmer, Brady, Favre, Rivers, Rogers) and a few RBs but there's no sense in sitting back and waiting for the punishment. As the injuries mount, it's hard to believe this unit can stop a playoff caliber offense, but, on the other hand, they won't play a playoff caliber team for at least a month.

So, the Ravens are mathematically alive and, in vision tinted by purple-colored glasses, still have a decent shot to be playing in the postseason. So don't pack away the purple camo just yet, but you might have some January weekends available for skiing getaways this year.

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