With their 22-20 defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13, the Baltimore Ravens found themselves the AFC's sixth seed in the playoffs, something that didn't change after Sunday's games. Now, the Ravens are four weeks away from having the opportunity to properly defend last year's Super Bowl title in the postseason.
A lot can change over that span, however, especially with the Miami Dolphins also having a 6-6 record and four other teams at 5-7. The Ravens' playoff hopes are not on stable footing, but that doesn't mean they cannot manage to keep hold of that sixth spot and take the field in January.
Here are the steps the Ravens must take to remain postseason contenders through their final four games. It's not as simple as just winning out.
Week 14: It's All About the Run
The Ravens host the Minnesota Vikings in Week 14, and their defense's main task will be to stop running back Adrian Peterson. Though the Vikings don't have much of a passing offense, they do rank sixth in rushing yards per game with 132.8.
Peterson has 1,208 yards this year on 261 carries. He also has 10 rushing touchdowns and 57 first downs and is averaging 100.7 rushing yards per game. The Ravens cannot allow Peterson to run free if they are going to win this game.
Baltimore's defense ranks sixth in the league in rushing yards allowed, giving up an average of 100.1 yards per game. It's not because teams won't run against them, either; their opponents are averaging 26.9 rush attempts per game. Minnesota is averaging 27.2 rushes per game, and it may run even more often than that on Sunday to compensate for its 24th-ranked passing offense, so the Ravens defense cannot underperform.
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There are risks to stacking the box with eight or nine defenders against Peterson or any back. Namely, it opens up the passing game, with defensive backs in man coverage against their receivers. This risk is somewhat mitigated by the Vikings' troubles throwing the ball, though they may be in better shape if Matt Cassel gets the start at quarterback if Christian Ponder isn't cleared to play after suffering a concussion on Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
The Ravens will need to balance a dedication to stopping the run with an awareness that a big passing play can come at any time, despite the Vikings' struggles. They can use linebacker Terrell Suggs as a spy on Peterson and try to read Minnesota's offensive intentions. They can also bring heavy pressure in obvious passing situations in an attempt to make the Vikings even more one-dimensional. Then, stopping the run will come much more easily.
On offense, the Ravens must also find a way to establish the run. Only twice have the Ravens rushed for over 100 yards this year, but the Vikings are giving up an average of 120.6 rushing yards per game. The Ravens have an opportunity to get running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce going early, because the Vikings are certainly not as good at stopping the run as they are at running the football.
Improving the run game has been a priority for the Ravens all season long, but it just hasn't happened. They've run well against poor run defenses, however, with 174 rushing yards against the Bears in Week 11 and 133 against the Dolphins in Week 4. The Ravens must take advantage of any weaknesses their opponents have against the run in order to have success, which makes the run game a valuable weapon for the Ravens in Week 14 though it hasn't been much of one over the course of the season.
Stop the run and run the ball: Those are the two keys for the Ravens to defeat the Vikings and how they can not lose their footing this week in the AFC's playoff race.
Week 15: The Megatron Problem
Unlike the Vikings, the Detroit Lions have a balanced and capable offense. In Week 15, they also have home-field advantage as well as the national spotlight. But even more problematic for the Ravens is that they have the league's best receiver in Calvin Johnson.
Johnson has 72 receptions this year for 1,299 yards and 12 touchdowns and is averaging 118.1 yards per game. He's nearly impossible to completely shut down. Single coverage does not work against him, no matter how good the cornerback, and defenses routinely have to assign two or three defensive backs to even have a hope of containing him.
The other problem the Lions pose for the Ravens is that Johnson is not their only effective weapon. If the Ravens dedicate too many resources to Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford has possible targets in receivers Kris Durham and Nate Burleson, tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Joe Fauria and running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush to similar dangerous effect. Baltimore's defense will have a lot on its plate.
Because Stafford has so many passing options, the Ravens won't be able to simply make the Lions one-dimensional by shutting down Johnson and forcing them to run. The best bet here might be to beat the Lions at their own game, which is certainly possible considering Detroit's poor passing defense.
The Lions are giving up 262.2 passing yards and 23.9 points per game. If this turns into a shootout, the Ravens will be more than capable of keeping up. Joe Flacco's strong arm means receiver Torrey Smith can get deep and burn Detroit's poor secondary repeatedly. If tight end Dennis Pitta is back on the field by Week 15, he will also be a major part of Baltimore's efforts to keep its head above water.
A bend-but-don't-break defensive approach could be very effective against the Lions. The Ravens defense ranks second in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage, at 37.5. Allowing the Lions to amass yards that don't lead to touchdowns, while managing to score touchdowns of their own can lead the Ravens to an upset win. This minimizes Johnson's overall usefulness for the Lions without having to over-commit their defense to stopping him.
It should also be noted that the Lions are more than capable of shooting themselves in the foot. Stafford is still prone to making poor passing decisions, Bush has a bit of a fumbling problem, with two in his last three games, and the team as a whole has been known to blow leads late. Though the Ravens need to focus on winning this game, it is worth noting that the Lions could simply give it away.
Week 16: A Rivalry Renewed
In 2012, the Ravens faced the New England Patriots twice—once in September and then again in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens won both of those contests, but the wins cemented a new rivalry, one that will be revisited in Week 16.
Both the Ravens and Patriots are different teams than they were last season. The Patriots offense is without most of the playmakers that led New England to the conference championship while the Ravens are struggling to run the ball and have a revamped defense. But the stakes are just as high for the Ravens as they were last year. If they are to see the Patriots in January for a third straight year, they need this win.
The Ravens' home-field advantage in this game cannot be underplayed. The Patriots' three losses this year have all come on the road, and it's not coincidental. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady needs to be comfortable and in a rhythm to do his best work, and that's difficult to achieve on the road. The Ravens need to get into Brady's head and shake his confidence.
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The Ravens did this successfully last year by relentlessly pressuring him. That will need to be their strategy this year, as well. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brady has a completion percentage of just 47.4 when under pressure and has thrown just two touchdowns to three interceptions when the pass rush is closing in.
With 37 total sacks on the season, the Ravens defense is certainly capable of bringing pressure. Linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs have 9.5 and nine sacks, respectively, and 12 Ravens defenders have at least a half-sack so far this year. Rattling Brady early and often can bring down the entire Patriots offense, giving the Ravens an opening to a victory.
This game is also another opportunity for Baltimore to run the ball better. The Patriots defense has given up over 100 yards per game every week since October including 280 rushing yards to the Denver Broncos in Week 12. Running well means the Ravens can control the clock, keeping the ball out of Brady's hands. And once it is—it's back to bringing the pressure.
On paper, it looks like the Patriots shouldn't struggle in Baltimore this year. They have the better record and the better offense, and of course, the Brady-Bill Belichick tandem is more dangerous than any quarterback-coach pair in the league. But with so much on the line for the Ravens by Week 16 and such a significant recent history, Baltimore can certainly get the edge over New England. It has the blueprint for doing so simply by looking back to its successes from last year.
Week 17: For All the Marbles?
There are many moving parts in the AFC playoff picture right now, which means there are many things outside of the Ravens' control. Even if they do win three of their last four games, another team may run the table and sneak into the postseason over them.
However, if the Ravens can win the three games leading up to the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals, they could find themselves in contention for the top spot in the AFC North and not just the conference's sixth-seed.
The Bengals are currently 8-4, but their lead in the division is not a comfortable one. Their quarterback, Andy Dalton, is struggling after a masterful October in which he strung together three games with over 300 yards passing while throwing 11 touchdowns to two interceptions. In his past two games, he hasn't reached 200 yards passing and in his past three, he has six touchdowns to nine interceptions.
Bengals on bye, Week 12
Where Dalton goes is likely where the Bengals go. And luckily for the Ravens, he could play right into their hands. Dalton doesn't handle pressure well, much like Brady. However, unlike Brady, when his confidence is rattled, it can often stay that way for weeks at a time.
If, win or lose in Week 17, the Bengals remain tops in the AFC North, a loss coming because of a rattled, mistake-prone Dalton could mean a one-and-done situation in the playoffs for the third straight year. And, if the Ravens get into the playoffs as the AFC sixth seed, they could be the ones to hand it to them.
The Bengals defense is a top-10 squad, equally as effective at stopping the run as it is at shutting down the passing game. The best bet for the Ravens in Week 17 is to use their high-pressure defense to render Dalton ineffective. Then, it may not matter that yards are at a premium for Baltimore. If they can keep this game low-scoring, the edge goes to the Ravens.
Because this is the Ravens' only remaining AFC North matchup, winning the division will be more about the Bengals faltering between now and Week 17. For now, the Ravens have to focus on keeping possession of that AFC sixth seed and making the most of this final divisional opportunity when it comes. The key to doing so is to identify each of their upcoming opponents' biggest weaknesses while also highlighting their own strengths.
The schedule is tough, but the Ravens have been here before. Most importantly, the sixth AFC Wild Card playoff spot is theirs to lose—they're no longer hunting it down. This makes their situation a little more bearable, even though they could find themselves out of postseason contention with one ill-timed misstep.