If you act now, you can secure a prime seat on the Ravens' bandwagon. It's pretty empty heading into Saturday night's playoff game in Pittsburgh.
As the Steelers won four straight games in December to capture the AFC North title, the Ravens gave several underwhelming performances and barely qualified for the playoffs, grabbing the last seat on the train just as it left the station. Most of the national commentariat expects them to lose Saturday and experience a one-and-done postseason for the first time under Head Coach John Harbaugh. They absorbed a drubbing at Heinz Field two months ago. Bookmakers list them as a 40-1 shot to reach the Super Bowl, which isn't quite "you might as well buy a lottery ticket," but close.
But if you think that means Saturday night's outcome is a forgone conclusion, think again. And I'm not saying that just because Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl running back, is out with a knee injury.
The NFL postseason routinely delivers surprises. We harbor expectations based on records, statistics, trends and seedings, but those are often irrelevant, even misleading.
The New York Giants and Green Bay Packers won Super Bowls as No. 6 seeds recently. The Carolina Panthers had a losing record in 2014, but now they're hot, having rolled through December undefeated, and I expect them to beat the Arizona Cardinals Saturday and give top-seeded Seattle a tough game a week from now.
As for the Ravens, despite their low seeding, they're a team no contender is especially anxious to face in January. They're comfortable in the high-stakes setting, not the least bit awed by going on the road. They won the Super Bowl as a No. 4 seed two years ago, beating a bunch of teams with better records. Their quarterback, Joe Flacco, has a postseason record few quarterbacks can match. He experiences extreme performance swings during the regular season, but Flacco is flat-out dangerous in the playoffs.
The Ravens are underdogs for a reason Saturday night. The Steelers played their best ball in December, generating momentum at just the right time. Ben Roethlisberger is having one of his finest seasons. His top target, Antonio Brown, is close to unstoppable.
But the weather forecast is for ugly conditions, potentially a leveling factor, and Bell's absence certainly helps Baltimore's cause. You're going to hear a ton about that on the broadcast, by the way, but the Ravens, with 19 players on injured reserve, have dealt with as many injury issues as Pittsburgh, if not more.
How can the Ravens win Saturday night? Here's how:
- Don't turn the ball over. It's crucial in any game, but the Ravens' history at Heinz Field underscores the importance. In the 2010 playoffs, they blew a two-touchdown halftime lead by committing two turnovers in the third quarter. Two months ago, they had an early lead and all the momentum until a pair of turnovers started Pittsburgh toward what became a rout. To have any shot Saturday night, the Ravens need a low-turnover game.
- Get to Ben. The Ravens' patchwork secondary is going to be up against it after facing inexperienced quarterbacks down the stretch. Roethlisberger always makes plays and Brown ran wild the last time the teams met. The Ravens' best shot at minimizing the damage is to apply heavy pressure up front, with Elvis Dumervil and/or Terrell Suggs and/or Pernell McPhee generating some sacks that shorten Pittsburgh possessions.
- Run it. The Ravens' ground game went from No. 30 in the league in 2013 to No. 8 this season, but when it struggled down the stretch, the entire offense went into a funk. Never has it been so important for rushing plays to generate 4 yards instead of 2, 5 yards instead of 3. That difference is what makes Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's play-action-based passing game tick.
- Give Joe time. Flacco had his finest season overall in 2014, but he struggled at times when opponents brought heavy pressure, as Pittsburgh did on Nov. 2, sacking him four times. You can be sure the Steelers will bring the heavy heat again against a banged-up Baltimore offensive line featuring rookies James Hurst and John Urschel. The Ravens have to find a way to buy Flacco time.
Yes, that's a somewhat lengthy list of things that need to go right. As I said, the Ravens are underdogs for a reason.
But that was also the case two years ago before they went into Denver to face the AFC's No. 1 seed. Their bandwagon was pretty empty then, too. It filled up.