Ravens Keep Playoff Hopes Alive, But How Far Can They Really Go?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVNovember 29, 2013

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The Baltimore Ravens went into Thursday night's contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a must-win situation. At 5-6, a loss would have dashed their hopes of playoff contention. 

Luckily for them, they managed to defeat the Steelers 22-20. And at 6-6, the Ravens have moved into the sixth seed in the AFC, even if that stay may be brief after Sunday's games have concluded. 

The defending Super Bowl champions have looked anything but this season. A chance for redemption in the playoffs is what they are after, but it's hard to imagine that this Ravens postseason run would look anything like the one they pulled off just under a year ago.

AFC Playoff Standings Through Thursday
1.Denver Broncos9-2
2.New England Patriots8-3
3.Indianapolis Colts7-4
4.Cincinnati Bengals7-4
5. (WC)Kansas City Chiefs9-2
6. (WC)Baltimore Ravens6-6
Four other teams with 5-6 records heading into Week 13.

The difference this year is on offense, not defense, despite the Ravens having made so many changes on that side of the ball in the offseason.

Baltimore cannot run the ball well. And without a receiver to replace Anquan Boldin or a tight end capable of picking up the slack for the injured Dennis Pitta, the passing game has suffered as well.

While defense can win championships, the Ravens need to have a more consistent offense in order to make a deep postseason run. Right now, the offense is relying heavily on big plays. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only Andrew Luck has attempted more passes of 20 or more yards than Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

This works to Flacco's strengths, of course—he has one of the biggest arms in football, and the deep ball is his signature skill. However, deep passes have a low rate of success. Flacco has an accuracy percentage of just 40.2 on his deep passes, compared to an overall accuracy percentage of 68 on the year.

Deep, downfield passing must be augmented by higher-percentage throws, like screens and quick passes over the middle—passes designed to gain five or 10 yards or those that hinge on yards after the catch.

Flacco simply lacks the receivers who can reliably catch these passes.

He essentially has two home run hitters in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, with the inconsistent Tandon Doss, Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson filling in poorly for Boldin and Pitta. 

Of course, Flacco can throw to his running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. But these quick passes behind the line of scrimmage are often blocked by the offensive line like outside running plays. The Ravens line has been terrible in run blocking this year, ranking 31st overall and 26th and 30th on runs outside of the left and right ends, respectively, according to Football Outsiders.

That's why Rice is no longer capable of being Flacco's leading target as he's been in years past.

This season, he has only 43 catches on 54 targets for 213 yards and no touchdowns. That's down from his 2012 total of 84 targets and 61 catches for 478 yards and a touchdown. It's significantly lower than his career-best receiving year, in 2011, with 104 targets, 76 receptions, 704 yards and three touchdowns.

If the Ravens cannot run the ball, and Flacco has such limited success on short throws that he can only go deep, that limits their offense significantly. They won't be seeing 5-6 teams if they make it to January—they'll be matched up against the likes of the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts, teams they must outscore to beat.

Baltimore's defense may be 10th in the league in yards allowed at 329, seventh in points per game allowed at 19.6 and second in red-zone touchdown percentage at 37.50, but that regular-season success may not translate in the playoffs.

Up against some of the highest-scoring, yard-stacking offenses, leaning on the defense won't be enough.

Just a marginal improvement in the Ravens' run game could mean a deeper playoff run should they make it.
Just a marginal improvement in the Ravens' run game could mean a deeper playoff run should they make it.Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens offense is averaging 20.8 points per game. The other AFC playoff contenders—the Broncos, Patriots, Bengals, Colts and Chiefs—are averaging 39, 26.2, 25, 23.9 and 24.5 points per game, respectively. The lack of offense is what will harm Baltimore's chances of returning to the Super Bowl this year even if it does hold on to the conference's sixth playoff spot.

For now, the Ravens' postseason hopes are alive.

There are tough games ahead—a road contest against the Detroit Lions in Week 15, a home game against the Patriots in Week 16 and the season-ender in Cincinnati—but the path has become much clearer with the Steelers all but out of the hunt. Pitta's expected return should at least give the offense a boost in the latter part of the season.

But many questions remain about this team, particularly on offense. These questions are so big that they cast doubts on whether Flacco and Co. can put it all together as they did to cap off the 2012 season.

It would be a huge accomplishment just for the Ravens to take the field in January. But they'll exit quickly without significant offensive improvement.