Three of the Ravens' six defeats are relatively easy to rationalize. Denver's Peyton Manning, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger got the best of them. I know that's overly simplistic, but those are three of the NFL's best quarterbacks, and losing to them is never a shocker.
But the Ravens' other three defeats are harder to fathom. They succumbed to Buffalo's EJ Manuel, Cleveland's Jason Campbell and Chicago's Josh McCown – a rookie and two backups. If you're wondering how the Ravens' playoff prospects became so precarious, look no further.
Teams need to take advantage of whatever breaks their schedule affords, and games against less experienced, established or accomplished quarterbacks always provide an opportunity to make gains. Although the Ravens have beaten Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden in 2013, losses to Manuel, Campbell and McCown have made their lives tough.
Even if they had won just one of those three games, they would be a .500 team today and their playoff hopes would look a lot different.
They're playing another rookie quarterback Sunday, the New York Jets' Geno Smith. It goes without saying that they need to make the most of the situation.
Smith has delivered some big plays and big wins for a team that has the NFL's top-ranked run defense and always plays hard for Rex Ryan, but the young signal caller is coming off a nightmarish outing against Buffalo in which he was benched. For the season, he has thrown twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns (8). His quarterback rating is the league's lowest among those with at least 150 attempted passes.
The Jets like to lessen his load and control things with their productive running game – ranked No. 8 in the league and averaging 46.3 yards per game more than the Ravens on the ground – but they're going to need plays from Smith. That's when the Ravens need to pounce.
In every game, the Ravens' defensive goal is to make the opposing offense one-dimensional by stopping the run. I'm guessing Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees is giving the strategy extra emphasis this week. Safety James Ihedigbo pretty much tipped off the plan when he told reporters the Ravens were going to "spin the wheel" on Smith and see if he holds up.
In the stretch run of the season, the Ravens are going to play Roethlisberger again, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and New England's Tom Brady – three supreme playmakers. Smith is beatable by comparison, especially in Baltimore.
The forecast for Sunday is, well, anything but pretty.
"It will be a tough, hard-fought football game," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
The Jets like it rough. The Ravens have been grinding their way through games. Cold, windy weather is expected.
It should be the Ravens' goal to interject as much prettiness as possible into the situation.
Although they finally got their running game going last Sunday, they shouldn't focus on re-establishing it against the Jets' rugged run defense. The Jets are vulnerable against the pass in 2013. The Ravens have a quarterback who likes to air it out. I say go for it.
Joe Flacco has, by his own admission, not played especially well recently. The Ravens have surpassed 200 passing yards in a game only once since their late-October bye.
But just as they took advantage of Chicago's soft run defense last week, they should go after New York's pass defense this week. In a matchup of teams that grind it out, they have the passing game with the higher ceiling.
The uglier the game gets, the better the Jets' chances. Conversely, if Flacco flourishes in the air, this game belongs to the home team.
By my count, eight AFC teams, including the Ravens, are currently either 5-5 or 4-6 and in the race for the conference's second wild-card berth. That makes for a lot of scoreboard watching. The Ravens' game with the Jets is one of five being played Sunday that impacts the race. Here are the others:
Pittsburgh at Cleveland – What's the best outcome for the Ravens? I say a Cleveland win, because the Steelers are more dangerous and have won four of their last six. Better to get them buried and wait for the Browns to eventually find their level.
San Diego at Kansas City – A tough spot for the 4-6 Chargers, who have lost three straight. Four in a row would pretty much end their season.
Carolina at Miami – The Dolphins and Jets currently lead the race with 5-5 records, so the Ravens could use Carolina's help here. But regardless of what happens, if the Ravens beat the Jets, they will own wins over both the Jets and Dolphins, a big plus if the race boils down to tiebreakers.
Tennessee at Oakland – The loser will have seven losses and fall out of the race. The winner probably won't last long, either.