Eisenberg: Sunday Not A 'Must Win,' But Ravens REALLY Need To Beat Jets


I'm not going to label Sunday's game against the New York Jets a must-win contest for the Ravens.

Oh, it's a big one. They really need to end a three-game losing streak that has frustrated the players, coaches, front office and fans.

But the phrase "must win" implies their season basically will end if they lose, and that's simply not the case.

The Ravens are in second place in the AFC North, one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, just underwent knee surgery.

From a place like that, you just can't play yourself out of contention in one week.

A year ago, the Ravens were 1-5 and needed binoculars to see the playoff picture. That was a bona fide "must win" situation. They were pretty much out of hope if they didn't win (and they didn't).

This year, even though they're disappointed to be 3-3 after starting with three straight wins, the Ravens still have plenty to play for.

If they beat the Jets, they could find themselves tied for the divisional lead with the Steelers, who have to play the New England Patriots without Roethlisberger Sunday.

Regardless, a win on Sunday would give the Ravens a winning record as they head into their bye-week break, a much-needed respite that should give their injured veterans time to heal. The Ravens then resume play in November with home games against the Steelers and winless Cleveland Browns, both of whom likely will play backup quarterbacks.

In other words, a win Sunday could engineer quite a reversal in the Ravens' general outlook. And the fact that they're playing the Jets makes the possibility that much more tempting.

The Jets have lost four straight games to fall to 1-5 after starting the season with playoff aspirations. They're ranked No. 26 in offense, No. 23 in defense and they're coming off a lopsided Monday Night Football loss in Arizona, so they've had a short practice week. They've also changed quarterbacks, turning to Geno Smith, who hasn't started a game since playing his way out of the No. 1 job in 2014.

It's a set of circumstances that conjures that primary commandment of winning football: Thou Shalt Take What the Schedule Gods Give You.

But the Ravens can't afford to get caught up in their opponent's affairs. They have their own problems. Sunday's game will unfold on the same field where they committed 15 penalties and gave up 403 passing yards in a loss to the New York Giants last Sunday. Right there, that's a lot to clean up.

Then there are the key injuries that have piled up. The list of players who missed practice this week includes quarterback Joe Flacco, the team's top offensive lineman (Marshal Yanda), top playmaking receiver (Steve Smith Sr.), defensive signal-caller (C.J. Mosley) and most decorated pass rushers (Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil) – pretty much a who's who of the roster.

Some positive injury news also developed during the week, starting with rookie tackle Ronnie Stanley's perfect practice attendance. The Ravens are 3-0 with him and 0-3 without him. That's not entirely a coincidence.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith also practiced all week after missing the second half of the Giants game with a concussion. His importance was vividly illustrated by what happened when he left, namely, the Giants' receivers ran wild.

As I've written before, after Flacco, Smith is the player the Ravens can least afford to lose. If he plays Sunday, that's a major boost.

Speaking of Flacco, my guess is he'll play despite missing two practices during the week with a sore shoulder. It was an encouraging sign that he practiced Friday, but regardless if Flacco or backup Ryan Mallett steps under center, I'm expecting a close game Sunday. The Ravens only play close games.

One way or another, they'll need to squeeze enough from their patchwork lineup to prevail. With the regular season not even half over and the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals dealing with issues, it's premature to call it a "must win" game. But it's something else.

It's a "really, really good idea to find a way to win" game.

OK, that's not so succinct. But you get the point, right?

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