The Baltimore Ravens defeated the Detroit Lions on Monday night, improving their win-loss record to 8-6 and giving them possession of the AFC's sixth playoff seed. However, they still have more work to do if they are going to keep hold of it, or even win the AFC North title, something that is still possible with two games left to play.
The ever-changing AFC playoff picture has been an advantage for the Ravens in their quest to properly defend last season's Super Bowl victory. And, with an AFC-best four-game winning streak, the Ravens certainly have built the necessary late-season momentum to do so. This is in contrast to the end of their 2012 season, in which the Ravens limped into an AFC North division title after losing four of their last five games.
But can they reach the Super Bowl again? Is this momentum enough to not only carry them into the playoffs but all the way through it to a repeat championship? It's incredibly difficult to win the Super Bowl in back-to-back years. The last time it was done was in 2004 and 2005 by the New England Patriots; before that it was the Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999. It's rare, not impossible, but are the Ravens the type of team to accomplish it?
|AFC Playoff Picture Through Week 15|
|1.||(x) Denver Broncos||11-3|
|2.||New England Patriots||10-4|
|4.||(z) Indianapolis Colts||9-5|
|5.||(x) Kansas City Chiefs||11-3|
|(x): Clinched playoff berth; (z): Clinched division|
Looking at their four-game win streak leads to clues. Three of those four wins were by three points or fewer, meaning both that the Ravens have the capability to win in close games and that they aren't able to separate themselves significantly from their competition. The Ravens have just a 1.4-point average margin of victory this year. While a win is a win, hoping for last-minute or close victories might not be the best strategy to approach such powerhouse playoff-bound teams like the Denver Broncos.
Having an accurate kicker like Justin Tucker gives the Ravens an advantage over the competition, but Tucker has accounted for an inordinate amount of Baltimore's points during the four-game win streak. Thirteen of the Ravens' 19 points against the New York Jets, 16 of their 22 points against the Pittsburgh Steelers and all 18 points in their win over the Lions were Tucker's.
Leaning on a kicker is certainly a way the Ravens can get to the postseason, and knowing they have a kicker capable of making game-winning field goals is an asset in the playoffs, but it's still not the most convincing way to reach and win the Super Bowl.
So can Baltimore's offense carry the team so that Tucker doesn't have to?
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is having the worst season of his six-year career, with 18 touchdown passes thrown to 17 interceptions. He's taken a career-high 42 sacks.
The run game is not what it used to be, having produced a paltry 1,160 rushing yards to date—last year, Ravens running back Ray Rice had 1,143 rushing yards just by himself. The Ravens collectively are averaging only 82.9 rushing yards per game, and Rice won't get near 1,000 yards for 2013.
In total, the Ravens offense is 25th in points per game, at 21.1, and the team has scored 30 points just once this year. They rank 29th in yards per game, at 309.9. With an offensive line that ranks dead last in run-blocking and 18th in pass protection according to Football Outsiders, it doesn't seem like this trend will turn around with two regular-season games left to play.
So if the offense cannot be relied upon to carry the Ravens into the playoffs, how about the defense? Baltimore picked off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford three times in Monday's win and sacked him once. Collectively, the defense has sacked quarterbacks 38 times. Its 12 interceptions have it tied for 20th in the league.
Where the defense has really shined is keeping its opponents out of the red zone. The Ravens give up an average of 19.8 points per game, ranking them seventh in the league. They're fourth in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage, at 42.86 and sixth in opponent red-zone appearances per game, at 2.5. Clearly, Baltimore's ability to limit its opponents scoring opportunities has been the team's biggest strength this year.
|Defense, Baltimore's Biggest Strength|
|PPG||Rank||YPG||Rank||Opp. RZ/G||Rank||Opp. RZ TD%/G||Rank|
This ability will be tested on Sunday when the Ravens host the New England Patriots. How the defense can stifle the Patriots' sixth-highest scoring offense will be a great indicator of how they will fare against offenses like Denver's, which scores a touchdown on a staggering 78.33 percent of its red-zone appearances.
The Ravens will have to hope that the adage, "defense wins championships," applies to them over the last two weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs, should they make it. But, the numbers overwhelmingly indicate that powerful offense is how to get to and win a Super Bowl. Teams that have done it primarily based on the strength of their defenses have been anomalies.
According to this Football Freakonomics lesson from NFL.com in 2011, since 1991 only two teams with offenses that rank in the 20s have won the Super Bowl—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002-03 and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008-09. Baltimore's defense is good, ranking ninth overall, but it will need to be better than that in the playoffs to lead them to enough wins to reach the Super Bowl.
|Ravens Offense, 2012 versus 2013|
More often than not, the teams with top-10 offenses win playoff games and head to the Super Bowl. There are exceptions, of course, including the 2012 Ravens. The Ravens ranked 10th in yards per game, 11th in points per game and fifth in red-zone touchdown percentage last season. They were better than average, yes, and far better offensively than they are this season, but they weren't the best in the league.
The change occurred in the playoffs. Flacco threw 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions up to and including the Super Bowl. They had over 100 yards rushing per game in each playoff matchup save the Super Bowl, in which they had 93 against the stingy San Francisco 49ers defense. If the offense can find a way to get hot, starting this Sunday against the Patriots or in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, it will be like a second season for the Ravens.
But this isn't the Baltimore offense of last season. What they accomplished in the playoffs last year was impressive, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility. This year, the Ravens aren't putting up comparable yards or points to their 2012 season.
It would be a massive, almost unprecedented turnaround for the Ravens to suddenly start putting up 25 or 30 points per game, which is what they'll need to win playoff games. Baltimore had to score over 30 points last season to defeat the Denver Broncos in the divisional round and the Niners in the Super Bowl. Remember, the Ravens have only reached 30 points once this year, while they did it five times in the 2012 regular season alone.
While the Ravens are on a hot streak right now that could be enough to carry them to wins over the Patriots this week and the Cincinnati Bengals in the next, it doesn't appear they have enough offensive firepower to carry them to a repeat Super Bowl appearance, let alone victory.
In fact, a playoff berth would be impressive in its own right, considering the Ravens began the season at 4-6 and with little hope to eventually play January football. At this point, the Ravens need to and should focus on winning out and trying to have a shot at a Super Bowl repeat.
But, should iit get the chance, the odds don't look good for Baltimore to bring home the Lombardi Trophy for a second straight season. The offense, which has been struggling all year, will be its ultimate undoing.