Eisenberg: Teams Won't Want To See Ravens In January


I don't have any hard evidence backing this up, but from monitoring what's being written and said, I get the feeling many fans doubt the Ravens would last too long in the playoffs if they were to make it.

I understand why there's skepticism. The Ravens are 8-5, so they're hardly infallible. Their prospects appeared dubious as recently as last Sunday in the first quarter. And their pass defense has struggled against top quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, exactly the kind you see in the playoffs.

Still, I would hold off on declaring that the Ravens are bound to fall short if they make the postseason.

Sure, they have issues, but every team does, even good ones. Did you see Green Bay's defense against Atlanta Monday night? Meanwhile, it may surprise you to know that few teams can match the Ravens' overall balance.

Of the league's 32 teams, only two are ranked in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The New England Patriots are one. They'll probably be the AFC's No. 1 seed. The only other team ranked in both top 10s is (drum roll, please), that's right, your Baltimore Ravens.

They're No. 7 in the league in scoring offense, averaging 27.4 points per game. Their offense is humming under Gary Kubiak's direction. And despite their shaky pass defense, they're actually ranked higher in scoring defense at No. 6, allowing just 19.6 points per game.

The Ravens also have by far the most effective special teams units in the AFC, according to Football Outsiders, an analytics website. Justin Tucker is perfect inside the 50. Sam Koch leads the Pro Bowl balloting. Jacoby Jones leads the league in average yards per kickoff return. The Ravens get a boost in these areas almost every week.

I don't know how the Ravens might fare if they were to make the playoffs, but I do know this: their combination of offense, defense and special teams, along with their history of playoff success, makes them a team that other contenders would rather not see in January.

They still have to make the field, of course, which is hardly assured. A tough road game in Houston looms next week. The AFC North race is wildly unpredictable. The battle for wild-card spots is heavily populated. The Ravens lost their margin for error by blowing three fourth-quarter leads earlier in the season. (Here's a fact: They would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs began today, but if they had scored just two more points against San Diego, they would be in first place in the division.)

In any case, their schedule is favorable, starting with Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at M&T Bank Stadium. The Jaguars are winless on the road this season and 2-11 overall. You can't ask for a better assignment when you're fighting to make the playoffs.

It's been a season of ups and downs, but a win by the Ravens on Sunday would give them a 3-1 record since their mid-November bye, a streak that suggests they're gaining momentum at the right time.

If they keep rolling right into the playoffs, the scenarios are almost infinite, some better than others, but all within the realm of possibility.

Favored by two touchdowns over the Jaguars, the Ravens hope to make this a slightly less stressful Sunday. If the outcome does become apparent relatively early, I suggest you take your eye off the ball and train your binoculars on Marshal Yanda, the Ravens' right guard.

Hey, do it regardless. Yanda, 30, is having a phenomenal season. According to the Pro Football Focus website, which grades every player every week, he's the best offensive lineman in the NFL this year.

When the Ravens went for it on fourth-and-1 at their 34 in the third quarter last Sunday, they ran a quarterback sneak behind Yanda and center Jeremy Zuttah, picked up the first down and went on to score a touchdown that gave them the lead for keeps. Asked about the play the next day, Head Coach John Harbaugh praised the whole line but singled out his right guard.

"Marshal Yanda – I just watched the tape – Marshal Yanda, man, he came off the ball," Harbaugh declared.

It's happening a lot.

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