Up Next: Playing For All The Marbles


December 21, 2009|By Mike Preston

Forget playoffs. As of next weekend, it's Super Bowl Sunday when the Ravens play the Steelers in Pittsburgh. When NFL officials put the schedule together, they circled Dec. 27 as the key date for both teams.

Whichever team wins, there's a good chance it will advance to the AFC playoffs. The other might go into offseason hibernation after Jan. 3, the final regular-season game.

The Ravens were having a pretty good day Sunday after losses by the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos. But their old nemesis surfaced with a gutsy, sensational comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers.

So, only one game separates the Ravens and Steelers in the AFC wild-card race, and Baltimore holds the tiebreaker because the Ravens beat the Steelers, 20-17, in overtime Nov. 29.

But that's when the Steelers didn't have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu, both out with injuries.

Roethlisberger is back, and Polamalu is questionable. But it makes no difference. When these two teams play, they always go to war. Now, there is reason. A playoff bid is at stake.

It's not interesting watching the Ravens beat up on the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears in consecutive weeks. Now, they have Pittsburgh, a physical team like the Ravens, but the Steelers also have a strong quarterback and passing game.

That has been a formula for disaster for the Ravens. But the Ravens won't back down. They think they're on a roll. All facets of their offense are ticking, and the secondary has gotten better.

But the Ravens could be without rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb (sprained knee) and free safety Ed Reed. Regardless, neither team has great cornerbacks, which makes the game even more interesting.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has approached the past three games as if they were playoff games, but this one is bigger. It's Baltimore at Pittsburgh, and they don't get much bigger.

Long snaps falling short?

Most of the attention on special teams this season has been on the kickers, but Harbaugh had better keep an eye on long snapper Matt Katula.

Katula had two bad snaps Sunday, one resulting in a missed field-goal try. Katula has had at least three bad snaps this season.

Penalty problem again

The Ravens could have put the Bears away late in the first half when running back Ray Rice took a swing pass and ran 28 yards to the Bears' 8-yard line with 27 seconds left. But Ravens left offensive tackle Michael Oher was called for illegal formation, which nullified the play and pushed the Ravens out of field-goal range.

We understand that Oher is a rookie and that he is just trying to get an edge on quick defensive ends and outside linebackers, but this has been a recurring problem. These things need to be eliminated before the Ravens play quality teams.

Tighten up 2-minute offense

When the Ravens are in their two-minute offense, it would be nice to see them go downfield more instead of dumping the ball to Rice, or throwing 8-yard outs to tight end Todd Heap. For the most part, those passes get you few yards and eat up a lot of time.

Cam tricks the Bears

Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron pulled some old trick plays out of the playoff book.

He brought in backup quarterback Troy Smith a couple of times and split starter Joe Flacco out as a wide receiver. He ran some reverses and laterals. But don't expect to see the trick plays every week. Those plays usually only work against sorry and undisciplined teams such as the Bears.

Welcome back, Heap

Heap had two touchdown catches in the first quarter, the first a 14-yarder from Flacco across the middle at the goal line. Flacco threaded the ball between cornerback Corey Graham and free safety Al Afalava.

Hopefully, there will be a few more passes over the middle by Flacco, which could open up the passing game.

Williams steps up

Receiver Demetrius Williams had a 33-yard touchdown catch to open the third quarter, and it was a great reception with Williams going over two defenders to snatch the ball.

In the past three weeks, Williams has been involved in big plays, and that's more consistency than he had shown in four years. But with Williams, as with all the Ravens' receivers except Derrick Mason, let's see some big catches against quality teams.

Flacco's bodyguards

With 1:53 left in the half, Flacco was forced out of bounds on the Chicago sidelines and surrounded by several Bears. Immediately, Oher was in the middle along with left guard Ben Grubbs as Flacco's bodyguards.

It might not be significant to some people, but that little picture says a lot about these linemen and Flacco.

Lessons not learned

After cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Frank Walker intercepted passes in the fourth quarter, they both had long, extended stupid celebrations, one resulting in a delay-of-game penalty.

If there is one group that has been chewed up, knocked around and embarrassed this season, it has been the Ravens' secondary.

Apparently, the defensive backs haven't learned any lessons in humility.

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