It isn't entirely true that the Ravens are the only team with a high-caliber defense among the five contenders for the AFC's second wild-card spot. The Tennessee Titans have given up the fewest points and are No. 6 in the league in average yards allowed per game, so they're also solid on that side of the ball. Baltimore ranks No. 2 despite having lost three straight games.
The other contenders besides the 4-5 Ravens and 5-4 Titans aren't nearly in the same league defensively. The 4-5 Indianapolis Colts are tied for No. 23 in total defense. The 5-5 Miami Dolphins are No. 26. The 5-4 Cincinnati Bengals are No. 32.
That the Ravens have the best defense by far should be an edge they could carry all the way to the AFC's No. 6 playoff seed. But the caliber of their offense, in the end, is more likely to determine whether they prevail over this crowded field of (currently) .500-ish contenders.
The Ravens' remaining schedule is lined with opponents that possess potent offenses, and with all due respect to Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don (Wink) Martindale and his crew, we've seen what happens when a top defense faces a top offense in the NFL of 2018. The Ravens' unit can be expected to compete hard and make its share of stops, as it did against the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers. But it eventually gave up 24 and 23 points in those games and the Ravens lost both.
The lesson? Today's top offenses are just too talented and effective to be completely shut down, so your offense had better be able to keep pace -- generate enough points to match the opposing offense.
The Ravens' offense hasn't done that lately. It has averaged 20 points per game during the losing streak, which isn't disastrous but won't likely get the job done often enough.
Now that Joe Flacco has a hip injury, there's even more scrutiny and uncertainty surrounding the offense. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday he doesn't know who will start at quarterback in Sunday's crucial contest against the Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. It could be Flacco, rookie Lamar Jackson or Robert Griffin III.
Regardless of who is under center, the offense needs to be more productive.
The opportunity is there. Although the Bengals routed Baltimore in Week 2, they'll enter the rematch at a low ebb defensively. They've allowed more than 500 yards in three straight games, prompting the firing of their defensive coordinator after Sunday's 37-point home loss to the Saints. They're on pace to surrender the most yards in a single season in NFL history.
Even though Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis will now call the defensive signals and has long had the Ravens' number, it feels like a set of circumstances that benefits the Ravens. The Bengals also are expected to be without injured wide receiver A.J. Green. They did just bring back deposed Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson as a special assistant.
For the Ravens, Sunday's game is the start of a run of contests against teams with struggling defenses. Incredibly, they're due to face the bottom six teams in this week's total defense rankings as they head down the stretch of the 2018 season. The Los Angeles Chargers, at No. 14, are Baltimore's only remaining opponent with a decent defense statistically.
See what I mean about there being an opportunity for the offense to get scoreboards popping and humming?
Whether it can take advantage of the opportunity is the issue. After getting off to a strong start, the offense now sits at No. 15 in average yards per game and No. 17 in scoring. Its ability to produce more depends not only on who plays quarterback, but also the answers to some questions that were circulating before Flacco's injury.
Can the running game get untracked? Can John Brown get going again as a deep threat? Can Hayden Hurst become a bigger factor over the middle? Can a more suitable run-pass balance be achieved? Can the line get healthy, stay healthy and perform better?
Yes, the defense could also stand to improve from its level before the bye. Erasing a troublesome turnover disparity (currently minus-4) would be a good place to start.
But most of all, it's the offense that needs to get on a roll.