Ravens Face Critical Stretch
By Paul Mittermeier
There are fans in cities like Miami and St. Louis who would be thrilled right now if they woke up and found that their team was 4-3. But when you go 13-3 the previous year, three losses after seven weeks just doesn’t cut it.
It is still too early to buy into all of the doom-and-gloom talk filling Baltimore's airwaves, newsprint, message boards and blogs. But the next three weeks are more than critical to the Ravens' playoff hopes.
Making it through the easy part of their schedule one game above .500 does not bode well for the Ravens as the second-half schedule is beyond brutal. And as everyone knows, 10 wins do not guarantee an AFC team a spot in the playoffs.
The Ravens sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger 14 times in two meetings with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.
There's no way around the truth. If the Ravens want a return trip to the playoffs they need to win the AFC North. A Monday night upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers and home wins against the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals in the next three weeks would leave Baltimore in control of its own destiny.
With a 7-3 record, the Ravens would have the tie-break edge over the Steelers. Baltimore has a much tougher schedule in the second half of the season than its AFC North counterparts, including road games in San Diego and Seattle, so the Ravens will still have to beat either the New England Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts at home. If the Ravens can pull that off, they could be playing for the division title on Dec. 30 at home against the Steelers.
It all starts Monday night in Pittsburgh. Last year the Ravens swept the Steelers by a combined score of 58-7. It was the first time Baltimore swept the rivalry, and it will be difficult to repeat that performance this season. Following their 24-13 road win over the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday, the Steelers are in the AFC North driver's seat. The biggest improvement this year has been the Pittsburgh offense.
Ben Roethlisberger, who led the league in interceptions last season, has returned to the form he showed in leading the Steelers to the Super Bowl in 2005. Roethlisberger has thrown 13 touchdowns and has more than 1,300 yards through the air. The most remarkable thing about Big Ben has been his ability to elude the rush and make plays after things have broken down.
The Ravens defense needs to make sure tackles Monday night to keep Roethlisberger from making something out of nothing. The Steelers receiving corps has gotten a boost from the return of Hines Ward, who shook off early season injuries and caught two touchdown passes against the Bengals. Willie Parker has rushed for 600 yards and has gone over the century mark in five games this year. Najeh Davenport also will get carries and is a weapon out of the backfield in third down situations.
The Steelers defense is holding teams to just 13 points per game and they have allowed just one touchdown in three home games this year. Defensive tackle Casey Hampton anchors a big and physical defensive line.
Pittsburgh has gotten good production from linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison. Safety Troy Polamalu anchors the Steelers secondary.
Pittsburgh signed former Atlanta kick returner Allen Rossum early in the season and it has already paid dividends as Rossum is averaging more than 28 yards per kickoff return and has returned one 98 yards for a touchdown.
Issue 2.44: November 1, 2007