The Ravens have lost two in a row for the first time in three seasons. The Bengals won Thursday night. The Steelers are a victory at Dallas away from matching Cincinnati at 8-6.
To say that the Ravens are in dire need of a win Sunday is putting it lightly, and the timing couldn’t be much worse with the hottest team in the NFL coming to M&T Bank Stadium.
This is the kind of week Baltimore could’ve used a visit from Cleveland or Jacksonville or Oakland. But it’s the scorching Broncos, winners of a league-high eight in a row, up next for the Ravens.
So a win isn’t just far from a given; it’s arguably unlikely in a situation where Baltimore needs one.
Say the Ravens lose to fall to 9-5 and the Steelers win to improve to 8-6, that means there’s just one game separating Baltimore from the second-place tie between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati with two games to go.
And the Ravens’ remaining opponents? The defending Super Bowl champion Giants and the surging Bengals, who have won five of six.
A win would wrap up the AFC North title for Baltimore, so getting out of this funk now is crucial to avoid a pressure-filled finish.
“It’s always important to right the ship,” coach John Harbaugh told reporters. “You want to bounce back, and you want to get back on the winning side of things. That’s something that we’ve tried to do, and we need to do. It’s always tough. The losses are disappointing. I know it’s tough on the fans and it’s tough on the players and tough on the coaches.”
Taking on quarterback Peyton Manning will be, as well.
In his first year with Denver, Manning has helped the team overcome a 2-3 start to clinch the AFC West with a 10-3 mark. The Broncos are about as balanced as it gets, ranking fourth in the NFL in both total offense (390.1 yards per game) and total defense (309.4 ypg), second in points for (28.8 points per game) and fourth in points against (19.8 ppg).
Manning leads quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts in completion percentage (68.3), stands second with 30 touchdown passes, as opposed to 10 interceptions, and ranks sixth with 3,812 yards through the air.
“Peyton throws to everybody, man. He’s still Peyton Manning,” safety Ed Reed told reporters. “That’s the reason why they’ve won (eight straight). He’s still Peyton. Peyton still throws the ball well, he still gets the ball to his playmakers, and he gets the ball to everybody, like I said. So every man has to be on point on what he’s doing this week.”
Reed’s thoughts on what makes Manning so dangerous at 36?
“The most deadly part of Peyton is that he gets the ball every play,” Reed joked.
The Ravens will be charged with stopping him minus linebacker Jameel McClain and possibly without fellow linebackers Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe.
Suggs was able to practice fully Thursday and Friday, and said he likes his chances of playing in the contest.
“If it was a Vegas game and 50/50 odds, you would have the best odds in Vegas,” Suggs told reporters. “So we’ll just have to wait and see Sunday.”
This is the first game Lewis is eligible to return from injured reserve. He hasn’t played since tearing his triceps against Dallas on Oct. 14. Ellerbe has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, but said he’s going to try to play.
The secondary could get a jolt with cornerback Jimmy Smith poised to return from hernia surgery. He practiced all week after sitting out the last five contests.
Injuries to major players has been a problem for the Ravens’ defense all season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees explained that has limited what the unit can run because players further down the depth chart aren’t familiar with the entire playbook.
“Obviously, it impacts us. It’d be ludicrous for me to say that it didn’t have some bearing, but also, the guys that go in there have to know what our package is,” Pees told reporters. “It hurts you a little bit. It’s actually hurt us a couple of times in the last two games, trying to close this thing out because we’re wanting to maybe do some things that we maybe either can’t do, or if we do call something, it’s really probably the first time that guy has had to actually do it in a game situation, and it didn’t turn out so well.”
After putting together a run of holding opponents to 309 yards or fewer in three of four games, Baltimore has surrendered 366 and 423 yards the last two weeks.
It seems ironic that Jim Caldwell will face Manning, his former Colts pupil, in his first game as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, but he’s more focused on the challenge posed by the Broncos’ defense.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has had some trouble in the pocket lately, holding the ball too long to absorb sacks, while fumbling in each of the last four games. It won’t get any easier against Denver, which is tied for second in the league with 39 sacks.
Linebacker Von Miller (16 sacks) and defensive end Elvis Dumervil (eight sacks) lead that effort.
“I think without question it’s an outstanding tandem - very, very unusual,” Caldwell told reporters. “Typically teams may have one at the one side, and then a guy that’s maybe more of a power rusher on the other. But in terms of speed, dexterity, moves and just flat-out strength, that combination is rare - those two guys.
“There’s obviously the two guys over at Indy, (Dwight) Freeney and (Robert) Mathis, who pose a very good combination, and these guys are equally as good.”
The Ravens’ offense will be looking to make it two straight quality performances - something that hasn’t happened for the unit since the bye.
Baltimore has alternated games with fewer than 300 yards and games with more than 350 over the last six weeks. The team had 359 yards and 28 points against the Redskins.
Overall, the Ravens rank 18th in total offense, which contributed to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s firing earlier this week.
Flacco admitted that the offense has underachieved.
“Yeah, probably,” he told reporters. “I think we’re working on becoming a very good offense around here, and I think we all probably wish it would have happened a little bit quicker. But I think we’re still working towards that. We’ve got to look at ourselves and make sure that we kind of, over whatever we have left - the regular season, the playoffs - we’ve got to make sure that we put our heads down and really try to excel at that process and get it going.”
The contest has postseason implications with the Broncos and Patriots one game ahead of the Ravens in the AFC standings, and Baltimore able to secure a playoff berth with a win or tie.
If the Ravens snap their two-game skid, they’ll hold tiebreakers with both Denver and New England, increasing their probability of earning a first-round bye. If they lose, they’re almost assured of playing during Wild Card weekend should they not fall out of the playoff picture altogether.
“This game is important for both teams. This is the playoff time,” Reed said. “Both teams know what this is about. Yes, we’re at home and we need to take advantage of that - both sides of the ball and special teams. But if we don’t, they’re going to expose it, because they’re a good team. They have a great defense, they have a great special teams, and they have a good offense. So if we don’t play our best ball, and they do, we’ll be on the same stick that we’ve been on the last two weeks.”