Eisenberg: Keep That Strange Team off the Field

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Has a team riding a four-game winning streak into the playoffs ever had so many fans flooding talk shows and Internet boards with hand-wringing concern?

Strange stuff, indeed. The Ravens are one of the most intriguing teams in the playoff field as a result.

They have the stuff to beat any team anywhere, go all the way. The tall order in the AFC playoffs this year is beating the 14-2 Patriots at home, and the Ravens have almost done it twice in the past year. They're the team New England doesn't want coming to town.

But they've also shown enough inconsistency that a first-round knockout is possible, especially since they have to go on the road.

I'm thinking they're going to beat the Chiefs Sunday in Kansas City; as a general rule, when a team is happy just to make the playoffs, as the Chiefs are after going 6-26 the previous two seasons, their playoff experience has a relatively low ceiling.

The Chiefs have played an easy schedule with just two games against teams that made the playoffs; the only playoff qualifier they've beaten is 7-9 Seattle. Meanwhile, the Ravens have gone 3-3 against a formidable list of playoff qualifiers that includes the top seed in both conferences and the defending Super Bowl champions.

Still, the Ravens have trudged through enough games recently that their fans are crossing their fingers that "that team" doesn't show up – the one that performs inconsistently, struggles to put away opponents and turns the ends of games into Stephen King novels. That team won't last long.

It's no secret what needs to happen to keep "that team" off the field and out of sight. The offense needs to play better. Moving the ball for four quarters, the Ravens might just be the toughest out this side of New England.

But having sputtered to the end of the regular season, the offense is facing the disquieting prospect of hoping it can "flick a switch" and come alive in January. That's frightening. You want to go in knowing, not hoping, you're going to move the ball.

Talk about a long, strange trip. Despite adding receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and watching Joe Flacco continue to develop, the Ravens fell in the rankings, slipping from 13th in yards per game a year ago to 22nd this season, and from ninth in points per game a year ago to 16th this season.

They've tried to settle the situation by revving up their running game for the playoffs, sticking to the ground on 61.1 percent of their plays in the past three games, as opposed to 47.8 percent over the entire season. But while the emphasis is where it should be, the production isn't – the Ravens ranked just 25th in the league in yards-per-carry.

Can they flick the switch and start humming in January? In this strangest of years, one shouldn't rule anything out.

A year ago, the Ravens limped into the postseason as a 9-7 wild card with seemingly dim prospects and gave their finest performance under Head Coach John Harbaugh as they dismantled the Patriots. That raised hopes going into a second-round game at Indianapolis, but their shortcomings caught up with them.

That's the hard part about hoping to flick the switch. You can always do it once, but you have to do it three times to get to the Super Bowl. You have to develop that consistency you craved all year.

This year's Ravens have it in them. They're more talented, successful and dangerous than last year's team, and after a 12-win regular season, they have every right to feel optimistic about their chances.

The less strange things get, the better they'll fare.

John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*

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