And you thought the Ravens got nothing more than a lump of coal in their stockings because they had such a rough day in Houston last Sunday and hurt their playoff prospects?
The fat man in the red suit visited them, too. According to sources, here are some of the gifts the Ravens found under their tree (also known as things they can be thankful for):
- A decent chance of earning a wild-card playoff berth Sunday.
It doesn't compare with having a playoff spot actually locked up heading into the last Sunday of the season. That's truly a gift. But considering that the Ravens have lost control of their playoff destiny twice in the past five weeks, it's pretty sweet to still have a straightforward shot. They need to beat the Cleveland Browns while the San Diego Chargers lose to the Kansas City Chiefs. It could happen.
The Chiefs' prospects were dealt a blow Friday when it was announced quarterback Alex Smith would miss the game with a lacerated spleen. I'm sure more than a few Ravens fans threw up their hands when they heard that. It's not good news. But Kansas City's backup, Chase Daniel, is a veteran who was effective in his one start in 2014. The Chiefs are a well-coached team that won't panic. Let's see what happens.
I'm expecting the Ravens to hold up their end of the bargain. They didn't resemble a playoff-caliber team in Houston, but they should be able to bounce back. The Browns have lost four games in a row, getting mashed flatter every week. They're also down to their No. 3 quarterback, Connor Shaw, an undrafted rookie free agent. Houston's Case Keenum is a grizzled vet compared to Shaw, who has never taken an NFL snap.
The big question is whether Kansas City can give the Ravens help. The Chargers have more to play for, knowing they're in if they win, and they also have Philip Rivers in a year when he seems to be practically willing them to key wins. But the game is in Kansas City and the Chiefs have the NFL's No. 2 pass defense, which could give Rivers trouble.
What's the biggest reason for the Ravens to feel optimistic? Think about it. We're in the holiday season and the Chiefs are coached by, yes, a fat man wearing red. Talk about an omen.
- The Browns' rushing defense.
Talk about a well-timed gift. The Ravens' rushing offense has faltered badly in the past two games after carrying the offense for much of 2014. Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak has stated the obvious, that his offense needs a productive ground game to function. Well, here's a chance to get well. The Browns' rushing defense is the worst in the league, ranked dead last.
That's a bit of a surprise because the Browns have some playmakers on defense, but they struggled against the run earlier in the year, then played well for a stretch before reverting, giving up 209 rushing yards to Carolina and 244 yards on the ground to Cincinnati in the last two weeks.
Yes, the Ravens are going forward with a patchwork offensive line due to injuries to both starting tackles, but they fared fairly well in a similar emergency mode earlier in the year and should be able to re-establish some traction.
- Justin Forsett's story.
It hasn't been an easy year for the Ravens in many respects. Forsett's surprising rise has been a lovely, feel-good positive to hold onto, a gift that keeps giving. It speaks volumes that he makes the veteran minimum yet still bought his linemen big-screen TVs for the holidays, a first-rate gesture.
- Another year with the third-place schedule in 2015.
This is already locked up, regardless of what happens Sunday. For the second year in a row, the Ravens will finish third in the AFC North and thus face a slightly lighter caliber of opposition next season. It means playing either the Miami Dolphins or Buffalo Bills instead of the New England Patriots (if you win the division), and playing either the Jacksonville Jaguars or Tennessee Titans instead of the Indianapolis Colts.
Overall, the Ravens won't have it as easy as they did this year, when they faced the weak NFC South. The Ravens' 2015 schedule includes trips to Denver, Arizona and San Francisco, and home games against Seattle, San Diego (yes, again) and Kansas City.
The Ravens obviously would much rather NOT finish third, but the impact on their schedule is at least a small rose on that thorn.