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Eisenberg: Sunday A Crossroads Moment For Ravens

Posted Dec 4, 2012

If Baltimore is to prevent a sudden downturn in the season, it needs a comeback game.

It took a village, as they say, for the Ravens to lose at home for the first time in two years Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Their defense was trumped by ancient Charlie Batch, a quarterback who has been around the NFL for so long that he was starting games when Kyle Boller was in high school.

On the other side of the ball, quarterback Joe Flacco’s line didn’t give him a ton of protection, his receivers botched some catchable balls and his offensive coordinator failed to loop in Ray Rice in the fourth quarter. (But, lots of weapons weren’t used in the 4th quarter when the Ravens had the ball for just eight plays.)

There was plenty of blame to go around, in other words, and Flacco didn’t have much of a game himself; he airmailed some open receivers, completed less than 50 percent of his attempts and committed a pair of turnovers.

Although the Ravens still have a two-game lead in the AFC North with four to play, an enviable position, the loss was so disappointing that it seemingly has pulled a dark cloud of fear over Ravenstown, with more than a few fans now expecting the worst starting with Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins. I have heard some knowledgeable fans predict Baltimore won’t even make the playoffs, much less win the division. That would be quite a freefall.

But the concern is understandable. The Ravens have struggled all season on the road, barely beating losing teams such as Kansas City, Cleveland and San Diego, and the Redskins and super-rookie Robert Griffin III are playing at a much higher level than those teams, having won three games in a row to leap into the NFC playoff race. FedEx Field is going to be jumping.

For the Ravens, the game is suddenly a crossroads moment of sorts. They haven’t lost back-to-back games since 2009, but that doesn’t offer much comfort a week after their 15-game home winning streak and 12-game division winning streak were snapped. All good things do come to an end. Another loss might enable the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals to draw even closer.

If you’re the Ravens, what is the recipe for keeping that scenario from unfolding? It’s pretty simple, really. They need a bounce-back game from their defense Sunday, regardless if Terrell Suggs is playing. And they need a bounce-back game from Flacco, too.

He is on pace to register his first 4,000-yard season and also toss 20 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, a nice ratio. Another trip to the playoffs would make him 5-for-5 on earning postseason bids. A year ago, he basically took the team to the Super Bowl; Lee Evans dropped his game-winning bulls’ eye in the AFC title game.

But his performances have gone up and down this season, for sure. He tore apart the Bengals in the season opener, but struggled in Philadelphia the next week. He torched the Patriots for 382 yards and three touchdowns, but couldn’t produce a first down for 30 minutes in Cleveland.  He has passed for over 300 yards in four games and under 200 in five.

In the win over the Chargers, he couldn’t move the ball for the longest time, and then he couldn’t be stopped. That has happened before. Flacco’s best qualities are his durability, his low turnover totals and his mental toughness. He keeps grinding. His quarterback rating is higher in the fourth quarter than in any other quarter this season.

The Ravens need Flacco at his best Sunday in Washington. They will tell you they aren’t quite as dependent on their quarterback as some teams because their blueprint starts with their defense and their running game, and there’s some truth to that. But their defense isn’t the stout lockdown unit of legend this year, and their running game is ranked No. 23 in the league.

More than ever, they need playmaking from their quarterback to get where they want to go.

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