In thick of it

With Ravens in playoff hunt, will tough closing schedule trip them up?

November 07, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

If the regular season ended today, the Ravens would make the playoffs with a 5-3 record (they have a better conference record than the other 5-3 teams).

But it's not important where the Ravens stand. It's what stands in front of them.

Of the six AFC teams with winning records, the Ravens have the toughest remaining schedule.

To finish out the second half of their season under first-year head coach John Harbaugh, they play all four teams in the NFC East - which is considered the NFL's' toughest division - along with a rematch with the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens' final eight opponents have a combined record of 36-31 (.537).

If the Ravens reach the playoffs after missing out last season, linebacker Jarret Johnson said, "We definitely would have earned it."

In order to contend for the postseason, the Ravens likely have to sweep their remaining four home games, or at least win three of them.

But the confines of M&T Bank Stadium won't seem as friendly considering the Ravens play host to the Philadelphia Eagles (5-3), Washington Redskins (6-3), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) and Jacksonville Jaguars (3-5) in November and December.

"We're in control of making the playoffs," cornerback Fabian Washington said. "We don't need any help from anybody else."

The Ravens have matched their win total from last season and have bettered last year's road record.

This has been accomplished with a balance unseen in recent seasons.

The defense is once again fearsome, ranked second in the NFL. The Ravens continue to rough up running backs and return interceptions for touchdowns.

But it's the often-criticized offense that is stealing the attention these days, putting up 27, 29 and 27 points in the past three games.

The Ravens have done this with a rookie quarterback, an unexpected rotation at running back and a young offensive line. And they have done this without a big-play receiver and without much contribution from tight end Todd Heap.

Harbaugh has repeatedly downplayed where the Ravens have positioned themselves.

"What have we done? We're 5-3," Harbaugh said. "We're not going to be any worse than 5-11. That's all we've guaranteed ourselves right now."

The Ravens were 4-4 at the midway point last season before winning one game the rest of the way.

Even though Harbaugh wasn't the coach in 2007, he knows how quickly a season can turn.

"Are we excited to be in the hunt? Yeah. But that's all we are - in the hunt," Harbaugh said. "To look at it from any kind of a deeper perspective, we think is kind of a waste of time."

Looking back at the first eight games, here are some midseason highlights:

Most valuable person, offense:: Cam Cameron, coordinator. The change from Brian Billick's offense has not been a disappointment. The Ravens are headed to the top half of the NFL in offense (currently 19th) because Cameron is getting the most out of his talent. He also adds some unpredictability with his two-quarterback formation, unbalanced line and beefy goal-line unit (which includes defensive tackle Haloti Ngata).

Most valuable person, defense: : Rex Ryan, coordinator. The Ravens are extremely lucky that the Atlanta Falcons decided not to pick Ryan as their head coach. The run defense is ranked first in the NFL (the Ravens haven't allowed a running back to gain more than 73 yards) despite not having nose tackle Kelly Gregg for the season. And the pass defense is No. 4 despite not having three of its four starters in the secondary for most of the season.

Best play: : Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has made a number of them. The top one was Sunday at Cleveland. Down 14 points in the second half, Flacco sparked the comeback by converting a third-and-16 with a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason. The Ravens probably wouldn't have a winning record if not for that jump-start.

Worst play: : Take your pick in the Indianapolis game: cornerback Chris McAlister letting Marvin Harrison run past him for a 67-yard touchdown or Colts running back Dominic Rhodes breaking a 38-yard run as five Ravens - Trevor Pryce, Ray Lewis, Jim Leonhard, Johnson and Frank Walker - missed tackles.

Best hit: : It's a tie, although both come from Ray Lewis. The middle linebacker forced a turnover when he crushed Browns tight end Kellen Winslow over the middle, and he ended the season for Steelers rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall by fracturing his right shoulder.

Worst hit (or nonhit): : Referee Bill Carollo provided the game-changing play in the Ravens' 13-10 loss to the Titans when he flagged Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs for a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty. It appeared from replays that Suggs hit Kerry Collins on the right shoulder (legal), not the head (illegal).

Scariest hit: : Strong safety Dawan Landry suffered a spinal cord concussion in Week 3 when his helmet collided with Browns running back Jamal Lewis' left knee. He has yet to play again this season.

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