The one silver lining in the Baltimore Ravens' current three-game losing streak is that it hasn't cost them a spot in the postseason. Thanks to both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals losing last week, the Ravens are in, but they still have work to do if they want to do so as AFC North champions.
That means there's no margin for error in the final two weeks. This Sunday, the Ravens host last year's Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, before facing the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 for what just may be control of the division. If the Ravens lose this Sunday, however, their ability to wrest that title out from under the Bengals is rendered far more difficult, doubly so if the Bengals best the Steelers this week.
So how can the Ravens—the injury-ravaged Ravens, who are just a week and a half removed from switching offensive coordinators—get the better of the Giants this week? The Giants are an unpredictable team, with six wins in their first eight games, four losses in their past six and a 34-0 loss to the Atlanta Falcons last week—that's dangerous for the Ravens, and they must be prepared for the good Giants to come to town after such an embarrassment.
Here's a game plan for Baltimore that, if executed correctly, should result in an all-important win and an end to their current slide.
Though the Ravens defense isn't what it used to be, neither is the Giants defense. In fact, for all the hype given their front seven, they didn't have that great of a defense last season either, ranking 22nd in yards allowed.
This year, however, they rank 28th, giving up an average of 377.4 yards per game (in contrast, the Ravens rank 26th). Against the run, they rank 22nd, while against the pass, they're 28th, allowing 253.7 yards per game. If anything, this means the Ravens offense can have success both running and passing the ball against New York, and a balanced attack should produce the best results.
A lack of offensive balance has been one of the biggest indictments handed the Ravens this season. Their 491 total pass attempts ranks them 15th overall in the league, while their 353 rushes ranks them 21st. Running back Ray Rice, who was second in rushing attempts last season and third in rushing yards now ranks just 12th in the latter and 13th in the former, despite being Baltimore's best offensive weapon.
Among the reasons why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was replaced last week by Jim Caldwell was a lack of proper usage of Rice and the run game—especially considering that quarterback Joe Flacco has been playing erratically as ever and the defense has been unable to carry the team as it has in the past.
There was little redemption for the offensive side of the Ravens' ball last week in their 34-17 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Broncos, with under a week to tweak the offense. Rice had 12 carries, Bernard Pierce five, and the Ravens offense as a whole had 19, compared to 40 passes for Flacco.
To Caldwell's credit, if Cameron had remained in his job, the number of carries may have been as low as 10, with the Ravens playing from behind for the entirety of the game. With the Giants coming to town—a team with no particular defensive skill in one area—the Ravens have the opportunity to be more offensively balanced, and it could just win them the game.
When it comes to pass coverage, the Giants rank 30th overall (only the Ravens and New Orleans Saints rank worse), but the Ravens will need to exploit this without risking exposure. Deep throws leave Flacco vulnerable to pressure, and his main deep-threat receiver Torrey Smith is still working his way back from a concussion.
The best bet is for the Ravens to work the intermediate part of the field, with Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta getting the majority of the targets and limiting the deep passing to the play-action.
Of course, successful play-action passing requires effective running. Though Pierce is projected as questionable at best, while recovering from a concussion of his own, Rice is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and should be able to run well against New York's defense.
A balanced offense makes the Ravens more dangerous than if they focus primarily on just the run or the pass, and with Cameron gone and an additional week for Caldwell to put forward a game plan for this offense, balance might just be what we finally see.
Who Wants It More?
The Ravens have lost their last three games in a row, while the Giants have dropped two of their last three and have only won two games since November. The Ravens have a playoff spot on lock-down, but that's a far cry from the 9-2 team they once were, with the AFC North theirs for the taking. The Giants are trying to get back in the NFC playoff picture, stuck in a three-way tie with the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, with their two rivals currently having the advantage.
Both the Giants and Ravens have much on the line in this week's meeting, so it'll take more than just being the team that can better execute their game plan in order to win—it will take a heavy dose of mental readiness as well.
There's little doubt that the Giants and Ravens are angry about what happened to their respective squads last week—Ravens safety Bernard Pollard likely summed up the feelings of the rest of his teammates in his comments from Wednesday—but how they channel that anger will have a tangible outcome on this Sunday's game.
To discount the mental aspect of this meeting is a huge mistake. Clearly, both the Ravens and Giants want to win this game—and both need to, as well—but the team that comes onto the field with the bigger desire will likely set the tone for the contest.
With so many injuries on both offense and defense for the Ravens, how they mentally prepare for Sunday's game—how angry they are, how great their sense of desire, how much they want to (potentially) fight it out for control of the division in the following week rather than just count themselves fortunate to have a postseason berth in the first place—could make all the difference.