Their cushion gone, Ravens now must face a hard reality

November 22, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

Ravens fans knew a long time ago that they would be staring down the barrel at Peyton Manning this week, which is a scary prospect under the best of circumstances, but it wasn't supposed to be like this.

When the season started, and you were working your way down the schedule assigning a "W" or an "L" to every game, there were three games that you basically had to concede to make an honest evaluation of the Ravens' playoff potential. The Colts are always problematic, and there was no way to count on either of the two games against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that any game would ever be considered unwinnable. The Ravens are a good team, and anybody can beat anybody in the NFL. But no one could have looked at the schedule dispassionately and felt confident writing a "W" next to any of the three games against the Colts and Steelers, based on the Ravens' recent history against them.

The good news then was that the schedule is also populated with cushion games. Those are the games that a team is supposed to win, so that the games you're not so sure about don't turn into games that can knock you out of playoff contention.

Which brings us back to today's game and how it was supposed to be one of the games the Ravens could afford to lose but now might be the game that defines their season.

We'll find out soon enough whether that's good news or bad. The Ravens have lost four of their past six games and didn't knock anybody's socks off Monday night against the beleaguered Cleveland Browns. The Colts are 9-0 and have the best quarterback on the planet. Can't say that's very comforting, but the oddsmakers think it will be a close game and you just have to hope they're right.

I can't explain how the Ravens, with Terrell Suggs sidelined indefinitely and a host of other defensive question marks, were listed as a one-point favorite when the Vegas types posted the opening line on the game Tuesday, but I'm starting to wonder whether the oddsmakers tapped into the contrarian nature of this team.

When you broke the schedule down into quadrants, you had to figure that they would probably go 2-2 through the first four games, make some hay against the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos during the second quarter of the season, and have some breathing room when the Colts and Steelers showed up at M&T Bank Stadium.

Of course, the Ravens picked up an early road victory over the San Diego Chargers and won their first three games, which gained them a ton of respect in the various power polls. So, they exceeded expectations during that first quarter of the season and seemed poised to store up some acorns in the standings during the supposedly soft remainder of the first-half schedule.

Didn't happen, of course. The surprising Bengals took a couple of those supposed cushion games and almost smothered the Ravens' playoff hopes, which has brought them to a point where the next two home games against the Colts and Steelers could make or break their season.

Really, if you look back over the past 10 weeks, nothing has gone according to projection. The Ravens were expected to build on last year's three-headed running game but came out of the gate as a pass-first team that put up big numbers during the first few weeks of the season. Then, just when everybody was starting to get really excited about Joe Flacco and the high-octane attack, the offense began to lose altitude and struggle early in games.

Which brings us back to this showdown with the Colts and the strange notion that a 9-0 team that just scored 35 points against the New England Patriots might be roughly equivalent (the most recent line has the Colts favored by one point) to a 5-4 team that managed only one offensive touchdown against the Browns on Monday.

Obviously, things can change in a hurry in the NFL, as the Ravens proved by going from 3-0 to 4-4 before the victory in Cleveland. Now, they need to prove they can change just as quickly back into the elite team everybody thought they were seven weeks ago.

The oddsmakers seem to think that's a distinct possibility. But it would have been nicer if Ravens fans could still look at this game as a low-impact opportunity to get a feel-good win against a team they love to feel bad about.

Instead, they're staring down the barrel at Manning with everything on the line, which isn't exactly what anybody had in mind.

Listen to Peter Schmuck | The Baltimore Sun when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM).

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