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Ravens Could Vault Into Playoff Spot After Week 11

November 15, 2013


OWINGS MILLS -- When the Ravens walked off the field under a dark Cleveland sky earlier this month, it seemed as if the light had gone out on their playoff chances.

But, just as the clocks had to be reset to allow early morning light through the windows, the sun may be again rising on yet another Baltimore postseason.

The Ravens were 12th in the overall AFC standings after their first loss to the Browns in six years, but moved up to 10th when their overtime win against Cincinnati was coupled with losses by San Diego and Oakland.

Baltimore's position was bolstered even further when Tennessee began Week 11 with a home loss to Indianapolis Nov. 14. That result put the Ravens in ninth place going into the weekend, with a chance to get into the top six awaiting them Nov. 17.

If the Ravens beat the Chicago Bears (1 p.m. Nov. 17; WJZ-TV, WIYY-FM) and the New York Jets, Miami and Cleveland all lose their games, Baltimore will hold down the sixth and final playoff seed, which the Jets currently hold. That's because the Ravens would be 5-5, tied with the Jets and one game better than the Browns and Dolphins. 

Plus, because the Ravens currently have a better conference record than the Jets (4-4 to 2-4), they would win the tiebreaker -- but that could change when the two teams have their head-to-head meeting Nov. 24 in Baltimore.

Nonetheless, two factors should temper any fan's enthusiasm. 

First, the fact that there is almost half a season left to play is evidence enough that anything can happen, and probably will.

Secondly, the parity that lends itself to such wild swings in fortunes doesn't cover up the fact that the Ravens still have on-field problems that need addressing.

They include the lack of a running game; quarterback Joe Flacco's inconsistent accuracy; poor pass protection; and, in an overall sense, the underachievement of an offense that has scored more than 20 points during a game three times all season.

In 2012, the Super Bowl champion Ravens broke that barrier nine times during 16 regular-season games before scoring 24 or more points during all four postseason contests, three of which were played away from home. Baltimore has lost four of five road games this year.

Head coach John Harbaugh doesn't often analyze the differences between road and home play, but he did acknowledge the disparity.

"There's always change required," he said. "You've got to improve, and change is improvement. We've got to play better. We've lost tough games (in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland). So, we've got to find a way to win those tight games on the road."

Protecting Flacco -- the most-blitzed quarterback in the league, with 145 instances when he has faced five or more rushers -- and getting the run game going are two main priorities, which could yield encouraging results Nov. 17.

That's because the Bears, a franchise known for tough, physical defense, are currently a team that struggles to stop the run or rush the passer.

Chicago has 14 quarterback sacks this year, tied with the New York Giants for second fewest in the league behind Jacksonville (12). That should come as good news for Flacco, who has been sacked five times during three of his last four games and has been sacked four or more times on five separate occasions in 2012.

Flacco, who has been sacked at least once during all 45 regular-season road games of his career, is 10 sacks away from his career high of 40, set in 2010.

"Teams are coming after us a bit, and we're kind of letting them," Flacco said. "We're really not doing anything to combat it. We haven't been good enough to stop it and do other things to get them out of it.

"It makes those guys' jobs tough up front. Teams have been able to get enough guys up in there to cause a little bit of confusion."

If the offensive line can create confusion of its own, it will not only protect better for Flacco -- who has tried bootlegs, waggles and getting the ball out more quickly to help matters -- but block better against a Bears rush defense that has allowed nearly 130 yards per game and 10 rushing touchdowns, the league's fourth most.

But, as offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell pointed out, those facts and the absences of defensive tackle Henry Melton, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman to injuries don't make the Bears' defense a pushover. The Bears' plus-8 turnover ratio is one of the league's best.

"They create a lot of havoc," Caldwell said. "They do a great job creating turnovers. They're very opportunistic. When they get the ball in their hands from one of those turnovers, they know what to do with it.

"You'll look at some numbers and say, 'Hey, this looks mediocre.' [But] in the total sum of things, it's a tough, hard-nosed and rugged defense that's extremely well-coached."

Harbaugh has described his team the same way. 

If Baltimore can get a win in Chicago and other results fall the right way, Harbaugh can, at least temporarily, call his club a playoff team again.


JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME: Today's question:

It's time once again for True or False Friday.

True or False: With the Ravens having lost both their previous games at Chicago's Soldier Field, a Baltimore NFL team hasn't won there since 1975.

The answer will be revealed at the bottom of today's column.


PRACTICE REPORT: The Ravens' final practice session of the week was held outdoors Nov. 15 in the usual relaxed, shorts-and-shells mode under partly cloudy skies.

But conditions were benign considering how foreboding the forecast is for Nov. 17 in Chicago. There is expected to be a steady dose of rain and gusty winds, but with temperatures at 60-65 degrees.

"You have to prepare for it," Harbaugh said. "Footing will be an issue there. It's a situation where you have to make sure you have the plan you need.

"We've practiced in the rain before. We've done a lot of wet ball work. You have to take your time with the snap, the execution. You have to be more careful."

All four defensive starters that were missing from the week's second practice were present for the third: cornerback Lardarius Webb (groin), inside linebacker Daryl Smith (thigh), nose tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) and defensive end Chris Canty (knee).

The trio listed as limited was also present: cornerback Jimmy Smith (groin), safety James Ihedigbo (toe) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (neck).

Two players that have been practicing fully appeared to do so again: running back Bernard Pierce (toe, knee) and wideout Brandon Stokely (thigh).

For the Bears, already declared out are quarterback Jay Cutler (high-ankle sprain) and Briggs (shoulder), the team's leading tackler.

Tackle Jordan Mills has been limited with a quadriceps injury, but there is still a chance he could play.

Also, in what could be an underplayed, but crucial injury, long snapper Patrick Mannelly (calf) has missed practices with a calf ailment. Mannelly has played in more Bears games than anyone in franchise history and has been key in kicker Robbie Gould's long-term success.

Three other injury concerns to watch before kickoff include tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle) and defensive linemen Shea McClellin (hamstring) and Jeremiah Ratliff (groin).

McClellin, a second-year player from Boise State, was the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week earlier this month for his three-sack performance at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, the first Bear to ever have three sacks at that venue.


FOR THE BETTOR: It's amazing how the result of one game can make the wagering winds shift so suddenly.

When the Ravens knocked off the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals in overtime Nov. 10, their Super Bowl odds (according to the Bovada website) dropped from 100-1 to 66-1, and they also became favorites to make the playoffs.

In the AFC title-game betting picture, the Ravens' odds of winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy also fell, to 25-1. That puts them in the sixth-favorite position.

In the actual AFC standings, the Ravens (4-5) are currently ninth, one game behind the sixth spot, currently held by the New York Jets (5-4). Baltimore was 10th as the week began, but moved up a spot after Tennessee's prime-time loss to Indianapolis Nov. 14.

As for the AFC North odds, Cincinnati is still the 1-3 favorite to finish first, but the Ravens' odds dropped to 5-1, putting them as the second favorites. Cleveland is at 11-2, with the Pittsburgh Steelers as 12-1 long shots.

For yet another week, Denver and Seattle are the two Super Bowl favorites, with their odds holding respectively at 10-3 and 4-1. At the other end of the spectrum, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay are off the board, but Buffalo is at 1,000-1 and Atlanta, Minnesota and Oakland are all at 750-1.

It's also worth noting that on the NFC odds board, New Orleans has slid into second-favored status behind Seattle and is 15-4 to win the George Halas Trophy.

As far as special betting propositions are concerned, Bovada has it at even money that both Miami head coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland will not be with the team next year in the wake of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying affair.

Also, the Jacksonville Jaguars are 1-2 favorites to have the first overall 2014 draft pick, with Tampa Bay next at 2-1.


QUOTE OF THE DAY: Chicago return specialist Devin Hester, the NFL career record holder with 20 total return touchdowns, has never faced the Ravens.

Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg previously coached in Cleveland and Atlanta during an NFL career going back to 2001, but he hasn't had to deal with Hester, either.

"We [played against him] in preseason once," Rosburg said. "But [Hester] didn't play, which was nice of him, I thought."


JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME ANSWER: Here's the question we asked earlier in this column:

It's time once again for True or False Friday.

True or False: With the Ravens having lost both their previous games at Chicago's Soldier Field, a Baltimore NFL team hasn't won there since 1975.


Even when you consider the fact that AFC and NFC teams meet sparingly -- and, before the 2002 schedule format change, they squared off even less often than they do now -- it may seem far-fetched that a Charm City team hasn't won in the Windy City for 38 years.

But it was during the 1975 season opener that the Baltimore Colts smothered the Bears, 35-7, for the most recent win by a local team at Soldier Field, so our statement is true.

It wasn't apparent at the time, but the game became memorable because it was the NFL debut of future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

The Colts, a proud franchise that had been decimated to the point that it went 2-12 in 1974, jumped on the Bears early, scoring 21 second-quarter points and cruising to the win.

As for Payton, he ran the ball eight times on the AstroTurf field used in Chicago at that time for zero yards, with his longest run going for three yards. He also caught one pass for minus-4 yards. 

For the Colts, Bert Jones threw two touchdown passes to Glenn Doughty, Don McCauley ran for two scores and Roosevelt Leaks added another.

Joe Platania is in his 20th season covering professional football.