For all of the injuries, the free agents who moved onto other teams, the inconsistent offensive play on the road and the struggles of the defense to stop both the run and the pass at points this season, the Baltimore Ravens are just one win away from securing a playoff spot.
And, if the Ravens win over the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday and the Cincinnati Bengals fall to the San Diego Chargers, Baltimore clinches the AFC North title with four games remaining in the season.
At 9-2, the Ravens have the second-best record in the entire AFC and there's no chance a postseason appearance will escape them this season. When they do take the field in January, it will be for the fifth time in as many years, and the hope is they can do one better than last season and finally win the AFC Championship game and reach the Super Bowl.
Though the Ravens clinching a playoff spot is inevitable, it's no guarantee that it will happen this week. Let's take a look at what the Ravens must do in their second meeting against the Pittsburgh Steelers to make this happen sooner rather than later.
The Pass Rush
The Baltimore Ravens defense sacked San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers six times last week, easily the best pass-rushing performance that unit has had all season long. The Ravens didn't do a lot of things differently than what they'd been doing over the intervening weeks, it's just that they had greater success against one of the worst pass-protecting offensive lines in the league.
This season, the Steelers' offensive line has mostly held up as compared to previous years, in which it was so plagued with injury and lacking in viable depth that Ben Roethlisberger was constantly one of the most-sacked quarterbacks in the league.
There's an opening for Baltimore this Sunday, however.
First, starting right tackle Mike Adams has an ankle injury, which means that Kelvin Beachum will be stepping in with the first team, either at right tackle or at right guard, with Ramon Foster switching to tackle if that is the case.
This weakened offensive line will be ripe for the Ravens' defenders to attack.
The second is that there's a low likelihood of Roethlisberger playing this week. Behind even a poor offensive line, Roethlisberger has still proven quite capable of making plays and winning games, but while he continues to recover from rib and shoulder injuries that has caused him to miss the last two games, his chances to play on Sunday are 50/50 at best.
If he doesn't play, it means Charlie Batch gets his second start of the season, and he's nowhere near the mobile threat of the Steelers' starter.
Behind that line, Batch is like a sitting duck to the Ravens' seemingly-revived pass rush. Further, it's likely the Steelers try to get more aggressive in their passing game compared to how they looked last week against the Cleveland Browns. All four Steelers running backs fumbled the ball away once in that game, and though the team responded to that by shaking up their depth chart and promoting Jonathan Dwyer to starter (and demoting Rashard Mendenhall to No. 3), expect the Steelers to be a bit gun-shy when running the ball.
With Roethlisberger under center, the Steelers had one of the most productive passing offenses in the league. Roethlisberger had thrown 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions before his Week 10 injury and had been sacked 18 times—quite a good number considering his history.
In comparison, Batch had no touchdowns and three interceptions last week and was sacked once.
If the Ravens face Batch this week, they must take advantage of the fact they'll be facing their biggest rival's third-string quarterback and bring the pressure much like they did against Rivers in San Diego in Week 12.
Don't Get Overconfident on Offense
The Ravens offense has been a better unit on the whole at home this year than on the road, which means they'll be feeling both confident and comfortable taking the field in Baltimore against the Steelers this week.
However, for all of the Steelers' issues when it comes to their offense and the quarterback position, nothing much has changed on defense aside from the fact that linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be replaced by Jason Worilds this Sunday as the former nurses an ankle injury.
Worilds isn't much of a downgrade—he had two sacks when he took over for Woodley last week against the Browns—so there should be few sighs of relief in Baltimore that Woodley won't be rushing Joe Flacco.
Flacco has a predilection for taking deep shots when at home, but he'll need to be careful of Pittsburgh's secondary. Though the Steelers as a whole have only six interceptions on the season, they've had multiple passes bounce off of their fingertips. Flacco needs to be mindful of Pittsburgh's prowess against the pass and not mistake their offensive problems for defensive ones.
The Steelers are still allowing the fewest passing yards per game to their opponents and the average yards per completion against them are 9.8. Going deep might not be the best option for Flacco this Sunday, even if he feels better about taking those shots while playing in his home stadium.
Intermediate tosses to Anquan Boldin and checkdowns to running back Ray Rice may prove more fruitful when it comes to moving the chains and getting into scoring position. Flacco doesn't need to play the hero in order for Baltimore to defeat the Steelers for the second time this season and clinch a playoff berth.
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