After beginning the season on a tear, the New York Giants put to rest the notion of a "Super Bowl hangover." Eli Manning was routinely shredding defenses, and by Week 8 the Giants were sitting at 6-2, well in command of a surprisingly soft NFC East.
The defending Super Bowl champs had a signature win in San Francisco, reminding the 49ers exactly who the big dog was in the NFC. All systems were go, and the Giants looked every bit the reigning world champions.
The Baltimore Ravens followed a similar path to start their season, and after eight games, boasted an equally impressive 6-2 mark. Both clubs were fully in command of their respective divisions and completely controlled their playoff possibilities with half the season left to play.
With the AFC North (and the NFC East) still up for grabs, both teams enter Sunday with a ton to play for. Both are coming off of embarrassing beatdowns from other playoff teams and will be looking to rebound with a quality win.
Baltimore finds itself in uncharted territory after losing their last three in a row. The Ravens suffered consecutive home defeats for the first time since 2007 and will look to recapture some momentum as they head into the playoffs.
Here are 10 keys to their success this weekend.
On the surface, we all think that Joe Flacco has no shortage of confidence. His "elite" quotes have been repeated ad nauseum and we are all just as tired of hearing them as he is. The fragility of an athlete's psyche cannot be underestimated though, and Flacco is no different. When he struggles, he does so mightily, and surely he is aware of this.
While the Ravens have shown they can win without a great game from Flacco, they have fallen short when they have to overcome him. Mental errors and a lack of focus have plagued him all year at a time when he is playing for the biggest payday of his life.
The transition from offensive coordinators can surely be a factor in the game planning and play-calling, but Flacco is in his fifth season now and should be able to make adjustments on the field as necessary. The Ravens need a game plan that is designed to keep their erratic quarterback on point while giving him options that will make him successful.
Obviously a great deal of that has to do with execution on Flacco's part, but keeping him comfortable and confident will hopefully lead to better decision making. Baltimore has plenty of weapons at Flacco's disposal. Getting the ball into their hands efficiently with high percentage pass plays will allow them to make plays and open up an effective running attack.
Baltimore got pushed around all day last week against Denver to an embarrassing degree. The Giants come in to the game Sunday with an equally impressive front seven on paper, but have underperformed as a unit.
The Ravens owe it to their quarterback to give him more time to throw the ball. It hardly seems sporting to criticize the signal caller when he is either running for his life or is a half a second from being planted into the turf. Ray Rice is one of the best running backs in the league, but even the mercurial Rice needs a hole to hit from time to time if he is expected to make plays.
On the other side of the ball the Ravens will need to make an equal push on the line of scrimmage. Eli Manning doesn't command the field quite the same way as his brother does, but he can pick apart a defense just as easily if he is given time. When Baltimore got pressure on Denver's Manning they were able to stall the Broncos out and key on obvious running situations.
The banged-up defense played admirably for most of the game last week, but did suffer some mental lapses and gave up a couple of big plays. If Baltimore's offense can put some points on the board and contain Eli Manning by keeping him under pressure, the Ravens will have a great chance to win.
While I'll spare everyone my opinion about all things offense running through Ray Rice, it would be absurd to think that Baltimore wouldn't want to attack the NFL's 22nd-ranked run defense. As I mentioned earlier, the Giants have some serious playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, but have been below average as a collective.
A game plan devised to get the ball in Ray Rice's hands through the air or on the ground will need to be in place for the Ravens to have a chance. Torrey Smith has yet to pass his baseline concussion test, so more emphasis will be placed on keeping Rice central to the Baltimore attack. Bernard Pierce was also held out of Thursday's practice for the same reasons.
An effective run game is contingent on the offensive line getting a push on the line of scrimmage. The Ravens employ Vonta Leach as their backfield demolition man to blow holes through the line. Leach can also be used as a heavier back in short yardage situations. His low, compact frame makes him ideal when Baltimore needs a first down.
If Baltimore can establish the run early, it will open up more options for Flacco through the air. The two feed off one another, and when either the pass or the run fail, it seems to doom the other.
The once fearsome Baltimore defense is being held together by frayed and tattered duct tape that seems to be pushed to the limit each week. That said, the mash-up on defense that Baltimore ran out against a high-powered Broncos offense kept Peyton Manning in check for most of the first half. Turnovers cost Baltimore field position early and helped Denver put 10 of 17 first half points on the scoreboard.
The Raven's starting 11 on defense won't really be known until game time Sunday. The possibility of Ray Lewis returning to the fold would be a huge emotional lift for a squad desperately in need of a spark. Last week Baltimore's defense played while missing three of their top four tacklers. Jameel McClain is done for the year, but Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe and Lewis could all return this Sunday providing a huge lift.
Getting to the quarterback has been something the Ravens have struggled to do with regularity this year. If they can't get to Eli Manning with some pressure, it could be a long afternoon.
It is pretty easy to point to Joe Flacco's pick-six interception as the turning point in last week's loss. The tone was set, however, on the first Baltimore drive of the game as Flacco fumbled on a 3rd-and-1 just inside Denver territory.
On the season Baltimore has 13 total interceptions and forced 14 fumbles. Eli Manning has been known to take some chances with the ball which could favor the Ravens' opportunistic defense.
Conversely, Joe Flacco has had his own struggles hanging on to the ball. The timing of Flacco's turnovers has proven to be more costly than the turnovers themselves.
A fumble late against Pittsburgh gave the Steelers terrific field position to tie the score and kill Baltimore's momentum. His terrible interception late in the first half against Denver cost the Ravens seven points and a huge momentum swing as well. Taking care of the ball is paramount to Baltimore's success.
Plain and simple, Eric Decker should not be beating Baltimore deep for touchdowns. Unfortunately the Giants have plenty of talent on their receiving corps and could make a along afternoon for the limping Raven's secondary.
Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Martellus Bennett provide a significantly greater threat to the Baltimore defense. These three have accounted for 62 percent of all the Giant's receptions. Baltimore was able to neutralize Denver's top receiver, Demaryius Thomas, last Sunday and will try to do the same this week. Though Eli Manning can get loose with the football, a mistimed jump or play on the ball can lead to a quick six points in either direction.
On the ground, Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson will lead the rushing attack. Wilson is the more explosive of the two, but Bradshaw typically gets more of the workload when he is healthy.
Jim Caldwell didn't exactly make anyone forget Cam Cameron during his first game calling plays for the Baltimore offense. Though it was the first time that Caldwell had called a game, his second effort will be, and essentially has to be, significantly better. Baltimore secured their fifth consecutive playoff berth with a loss last week, but can't feel good about back-pedalling into the playoffs.
Armchair quarterbacks all over "Ravens Nation" had to be scratching their heads with some of the decisions last Sunday. The seal has now been broken on Caldwell's maiden play-calling game and he will be expected to be part of Joe Flacco's resurrection.
Baltimore has to show some life on offense if they expect to do anything in the playoffs. Allowing Flacco to run the no-huddle offense seemed to be a fluid transition late in the first half and in the second after the game had slipped out of reach. The key is to keeping the defense off balance with the plays that are called in. Recognize what works early and go to it until the defense adjusts.
Baltimore has their speed merchant in Jacoby Jones, but the Giants may have found their own trump card. David Wilson has managed to wiggle out of Tom Coughlin's dog house long enough to become a legitimate threat on special teams.
Against the Saints two weeks ago Wilson found the end zone three times and was a difference-maker with a 97-yard kickoff return. Atlanta corralled him last week, but Wilson has breakaway speed and can take a punt or kickoff to the house at any time.
Baltimore's coverage was solid against Trindon Holliday, but they'll need to be on their toes when the speedy Giants' rookie is on the field.
For a while it seemed like the Baltimore offensive game plan was geared towards getting their quarterback the best possible fantasy football numbers. The important numbers are the quarterback's ability to move the ball down the field and get first downs.
Getting the ball into the hands of the Ravens' production team needs to be the top priority on offense. At the skilled positions Baltimore has no shortage of talent. Though I stand by my assertion that the offense needs to be run through Ray Rice first and foremost, the rest of the players on offense will benefit as well.
Dennis Pitta has emerged this season as a legitimate first look in the passing game. He is tough, durable with sure hands and deceptive speed. With Torrey Smith doubtful for Sunday, Pitta will have to be Flacco's first or second option down the field.
Anquan Boldin is putting up his best numbers as a Baltimore Raven, and is within striking distance of 1000 yards receiving. Jacoby Jones would slide into Smith's role as the speed option at receiver and Tandon Doss is starting to show that he can be a option as well.
The Baltimore Ravens have been synonymous with aggressive and ferocious defense. They play fast, rough and nasty and make opponents cringe to see them on the schedule. While injuries have depleted the personnel and the leaders have all gotten older and wiser, the Ravens seem to have lost their swagger on defense.
Nobody used to run on Baltimore. Last week, the Ravens gave up their sixth 100-yard rusher of the year. The emotional heart and soul of the defense (and the team) is Ray Lewis. The Hall of Fame middle linebacker has been out since Week 6, and the Ravens have been 4-4 in his absence. I'm not saying the Ravens literally need to punch anyone in the mouth, but with Lewis out, the defensive unit has lacked the fire and intensity that Lewis is known for.
The New York Giants can look unstoppable on offense when everything is clicking for them. They got humiliated in Atlanta last week and will be looking to bounce back. They are also fighting for a playoff spot after going 2-4 in their last six games.
The Ravens have shown a lack of that killer instinct this season without Lewis. They have allowed two of their last three opponents to overcome fourth quarter deficits and lost both games on the final possession. With a chance to control their own destiny, Baltimore has stumbled and fallen flat, backing in to the playoffs after the Steelers and Bengals lost.
Getting back to the angry, aggressive and hard-hitting defense is what Baltimore needs to show moving forward. They can trade punches (metaphorically of course) with anyone, but have failed to deliver the knockout that the defense has been known for.