I'm on record saying the Ravens need big things from quarterback Joe Flacco down the stretch if they want to make the playoffs. There's no doubt about it.
But in Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's system, Flacco can't provide his "A" game unless the Ravens are effective on the ground. Kubiak uses the running game to set up the passing game.
With that in mind, and with apologies to Forrest Gump, a football star from another era, here's my unofficial motto for the Ravens in the final weeks of the 2014 season: "Run, Gary, run!"
In other words, don't go pass crazy and minimize a ground game that, led by Justin Forsett, has engineered a nice recovery from last year's debacle. Ranked No. 10 in the league, it is producing 124.1 yards per game.
A consistently solid running game is the Ravens' best bet to take them where they want to go. It gives them balance on offense, controls the clock, keeps their defense off the field and, well, just gets to the heart of who they want to be, a physical team.
It's certainly going to be a key against the Saints Monday night in New Orleans. Normally impregnable at home, the Saints have lost two straight in the Superdome with a soft rushing defense a major factor.
On Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals ran on 36 of their 59 snaps, rolled up 186 rushing yards and blew out the Saints. One week earlier, the San Francisco 49ers rushed for 144 yards on 32 attempts in an overtime win.
The Saints' pass defense also is struggling and actually is ranked lower (New Orleans is 19th against the run and 24th against the pass), so Flacco surely will look to make big plays with his arm, especially after the Saints lost safety Rafael Bush to a fractured tibia Sunday – the team's third starting safety to suffer a season-ending injury.
But if Forsett and the running game are rolling, the Ravens can better control the clock and keep New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees off the field. That's what Cincinnati did, and it's even more important for the Ravens, given their proclivity for giving up big passing plays.
Relying on the run plays right into the Ravens' schedule. None of their six remaining opponents are ranked in the league's top seven in rushing defense. Only one is ranked in the top 11. (Miami at No. 8.) Otherwise, Cleveland is No. 31, Jacksonville is No. 26, the Saints are No. 19, Houston is No. 16 and San Diego is No. 12.
Not exactly Monsters of the Midway.
But regardless, the Ravens need to be able to run the ball, period. Yes, the NFL is as pass-happy as ever, with quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck posting pinball numbers on many Sundays, but teams that run as well as pass tend to prevail later in the season.
I'm sure Luck and the Indianapolis Colts wished they could run it better as the New England Patriots stomped them Sunday night with someone named Jonas Gray, a former Ravens practice-squadder, rushing for 199 yards and four touchdowns.
I'm sure Manning wished he had a semblance of a running game supporting him as his Denver Broncos fell to the St. Louis Rams Sunday. The Broncos generated 19 first downs through the air and one on the ground.
Hey, even as Rodgers tore apart the Philadelphia Eagles with his pinpoint passing Sunday, the Green Bay Packers rushed for more than 100 yards.
As Kubiak often preaches, balance is the goal.
Flacco has experienced ups and downs in 2014, but the Ravens are going to hit the passing game hard in every game and make their share of gains; that's how football is played now. Yet there's no doubt the Ravens are at their best in 2014 when they're running it, too. They've averaged 147.8 yards on the ground in their six wins and 87.7 yards in their four losses. They've surpassed 100 rushing yards in every win, yet reached that threshold just once in defeat.
Despite that disparity, they've forsaken the run in several games, usually because they're behind. The goal, going forward, should be to make sure that doesn't happen. No matter what transpires early, a voice should echo in Kubiak's headset: "Run, Gary, run!"
It's the Ravens' best chance to make this a season to remember.