Nine weeks into the season and it is clear that two teams, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, have risen to the top. Between those two and the rest of the league there is a noticeable gap with a different team seemingly holding that three spot each week. Looking back on the season, if not for two trap games and some play calling that could be called questionable at best, it would be a three headed monster and not just a duo atop the NFL.
The Baltimore Ravens should be in the conversation with the Packers and 49ers… except they are not. Appearing to pick up right where they left off, falling a touchdown short of the 2010 AFC Championship, the 2011 Ravens came out swinging. Firing on all cylinders the Ravens jumped out to a 4-1 record in impressive fashion.
Leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams, New York Jets and Houston Texans in their wake, the only blemish on the young season was a road loss to the Tennessee Titans. From that vantage point they looked ahead to games with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals, Steelers again, and the pitiable Seattle Seahawks. 8-1 or at the very least 7-2 and first place in the AFC North was there for the taking.
Except the Ravens didn’t take it. Sweeping Pittsburgh would be difficult so going 3-1 over this stretch would be acceptable, but 2-2 would not be. Yet that is exactly what happened. Adding to the conundrum was that the Steelers were not one of the two losses. Now instead of securing their role as the AFC’s elite the Ravens find themselves in the middle of an identity crisis.
Sitting a half game behind Pittsburgh -- a team they've beaten twice -- the Ravens find themselves in a precarious position with the Steelers on their bye and Baltimore hosting the Cincinnati Bengals. Win and the take over first place in the AFC North and control of their destiny. Lose, fall back to third place and put their fate in the hands of the other 10 teams in the log jam that is the AFC playoff race.
In their two losses since the bye, Ray Rice combined for 13 carries for 55 yards rushing. In those same two losses, Joe Flacco attempted 90 passes for 392 yards. His yards per attempts in those losses are a puny 4.35. (For perspective, Jimmy Clausen's yards/att was a relatively robust 5.21 last year.)
This is John Harbaugh trying make this team something they are not, and make Flacco something he is not. As explosive as Flacco, Torrey Smith and the Baltimore passing game can be, the more Harbaugh fights the running game the more he adds to their identity crisis.
The table below clearly shows the Ravens go as the running game goes. Only once have they won when rushing for under 100 yards.
Moreover, Flacco's passing efficiency improves dramatically when the team takes a more balanced approach. His yards/att in those games is a much healthier 7.03, and his QB rating (79.2) is at least average, and a full twenty points better than his rating in pass-wacky games.
The Ravens are a complete team, defensively and offensively. All three parts need to work in harmony for them to succeed. A ratio of 90 passes to 13 rushes is not harmony. One trap game can happen, two trap games, for a team as good as this Ravens team can be, should not.
The sooner Baltimore accepts that Joe Flacco cannot take them to the promised land on his own, but rather the collective efforts of Flacco, Ray Rice and the defense, the sooner their march to the Super Bowl can resume. Which team -- and which coach -- show up the next seven Sunday’s will determine their path.
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