The New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens both reside in second place in their respective divisions, which makes Sunday's AFC clash more important than usual.
Playoff hopes are dimmer in Baltimore, where the defending champs are 4-6 out of the AFC North and have lost four of their last five. A talent exodus last offseason has the Ravens doing nothing in particular well.
Baltimore leads this series 5-0, but this one could swing either way depending on the play of some major names. Here's a gander at three players who will dictate the victor Sunday.
Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
No player has better encapsulated the 2013 Jets than rookie quarterback Geno Smith. The West Virginia product was benched last week in a loss to Buffalo after going 8-of-23 for 103 yards and three interceptions.
ESPN's Rich Cimini confirms that Smith will get another shot Sunday against the Ravens:
Smith leads the NFL with 20 turnovers, and NFL.com's Marc Sessler adds another negative that speaks to how much the rookie has struggled:
On the road, Smith needs to at least be efficient and not turn the ball over for the Jets to have a chance.
Chris Ivory, RB, New York Jets
Smith will be helped by an emerging star at running back. Chris Ivory joined the team after spending a few years in New Orleans and has taken over the starting role in the past few weeks.
RotoExperts' Jayson Braddock illustrates Ivory's recent efficiency well:
Ivory has rushed for over 100 yards in two of his last four outings, and just missed the mark last week with a total of 98.
The Ravens rank just outside of the top 10 in the league against the run. Ivory won't produce eye-popping stats, but he must remain effective in order to keep the Baltimore defense honest and give Smith some room to work.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco is the man for Baltimore.
Duh. He's the $120 million quarterback—the one that has thrown a career-high 13 interceptions this year with six games to go. The guy that says the interceptions are "annoying" per Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun:
Flacco also struggles with the deep ball. We'll double-dip with ESPN's Cimini to get that point across:
Flacco won't be getting any help from running back Ray Rice, who averages just three yards per carry this year. Yes, Rice had a huge game last week, but that won't happen against the NFL's No. 1 ranked run defense.
Can Flacco orchestrate a one-dimensional attack and lead the Ravens to victory? We'll find out Sunday. The team's fate rests squarely on his shoulders.