Biggest Questions Ravens Must Answer Before 2013 Playoffs
The Baltimore Ravens have rattled off four straight wins, which has them back in the division race and in control of their own destiny. Making the playoffs will be no piece of cake, considering the opposition the Ravens face in Weeks 16 and 17, but all of a sudden, Baltimore looks like a team that nobody wants to draw if it does make the postseason.
Before that happens, however, there are some important questions that need to be answered. Most of those questions have to do with an offense that has struggled in pretty much every area: running, offensive line play, scoring and third-down conversions.
If the Ravens can answer their biggest questions, they'll be a formidable opponent for anybody and have a legitimate shot at defending their crown. But what are those questions?
Glad you asked. Here are the five biggest questions the Baltimore Ravens have to answer before the 2014 NFL playoffs start.
Will We See a Rushing Attack This Season?
There's no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed, but neither of them has been the most glaring omission from this year's Ravens team. That dubious honor belongs to the rushing attack.
Baltimore ranks dead last in yards per carry and 29th in yards per game on the ground, and there haven't been any reasons to think that's going to change any time soon.
When the Ravens couldn't run the ball earlier in the season, many (myself included) assumed that it would be an issue that would eventually sort itself out.
Fast-forward to Week 16, and the Ravens still can't run the ball.
Joe Flacco just isn't the type of quarterback who can drop back 50 times per game. Baltimore's chances of making the playoffs and doing any damage if it gets there will increase drastically if there is any semblance of a ground game.
Can the Ravens Score Enough Touchdowns?
Justin Tucker instantly became the most popular kicker in the NFL after his game-winning 61-yarder and subsequent reference to his fantasy football team. That's great, and Tucker deserves to be recognized for his brilliance, but the Ravens shouldn't have to lean on him so heavily.
Baltimore leads the league with 35 made field goals, but ranks 29th with only 1.9 touchdowns per game, according to Team Rankings.
With their failure to score a touchdown in Week 15, the Ravens slipped to 28th in terms of red-zone touchdown scoring.
The team has eked out some last-minute victories in the last three weeks, but the winning won't continue if the Ravens have to keep settling for three points every time they get into the red zone.
Can the Offensive Line Protect Joe Flacco?
Whether the O-line will be able to continue that remains to be seen, but it will be a huge factor in whether Flacco can lead the offense through the playoffs like he did last season or not.
Obviously, every quarterback is much better when he doesn't have pass-rushers in his face, and Flacco has shown how good he can be when he has time to make reads and let plays develop down the field.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the drop-off in Flacco's performance when he's pressured is significant. He has a passer rating of 90.5 when there's no pressure, but that mark is cut in half to 44.9 when defenders beat the offensive line.
Joe Flacco can carry the team, but will the offensive line let him?
Is the Defense Capable of Closing Out Games?
Justin Tucker's 61-yard field goal is the highlight that will be shown on every NFL show this week, but it didn't need to come down to that. When the game was on the line, the defense came up short...again.
It's an alarming trend, and quite the reverse of what we're used to seeing in Baltimore. Usually, the Ravens defense is the one making clutch plays, like picking off Peyton Manning in overtime or making a goal-line stand in the Super Bowl.
This season, the defense hasn't been able to get off the field. The Green Bay Packers drove the length of the field in Week 6, draining the clock and kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired.
The very next week, the Pittsburgh Steelers did the same thing. Ben Roethlisberger led his Steelers down the field for a touchdown drive in Week 13, but barely missed on the game-tying two-point conversion.
There was the ridiculous Hail Mary touchdown to A.J. Green, and then there was the incomprehensible ending against the Minnesota Vikings when the Ravens gave up two easy touchdowns that should have cost them the game.
Most recently, it was Matthew Stafford's touchdown drive that gave the the Detroit Lions the lead with two minutes left in the game.
The 2013 version of the Ravens defense is better than the Super Bowl-winning unit, except for late in the fourth quarter of crucial games. That's kind of an important period in playoff games, so we'll have to wait and see whether Baltimore can close out a game with its defense.
Can Joe Flacco Get Hot at the Right Time?
The Ravens seem to be getting hot at just the right time, but it's a quarterback league, and their playoff hopes rest on the broad shoulders of Joe Flacco.
We've already seen him hit his stride and dominate the postseason, so it's not a question of whether he can do it, but if he will do it this season.
If Flacco flips the proverbial postseason switch, the Ravens are in business. In the playoffs, anything can happen, and Flacco is capable of outdueling any other gunslinger he faces.
If he can't get hot, Baltimore has no chance of doing anything in the playoffs. The Delaware product was exceptional last postseason, but he had the luxury of a more competent offense around him.
This year, the Ravens can only go as far as Flacco can take them. The ball's in your court, Mr. 120.