Monday, December 1, 2008

Baltimore Ravens: Serious Contenders or Happy to be in Hunt?

Despite a convincing 34-3 road victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens continue to face the same skepticism.

When will Baltimore beat a good team? My high school team could have beaten the Bengals!

And yes, while the miserable Bengals are already looking ahead to next year’s draft (not to mention whether Marvin Lewis will be retained as head coach), it’s unjust to completely dismiss a Baltimore offense that totaled 451 yards in Sunday’s win, its highest total since 2001.

Remember, we’re talking about the Baltimore Ravens here. Despite winning Super Bowl XXXV in January 2001, the Ravens’ offense has been putrid for the past decade, wasting one of the better defenses of the past 25 years.

If the Ravens had even an average offense over the past eight years, another Super Bowl or two would have been very possible.

With that in mind, let’s acknowledge a Ravens’ offense that has averaged 30.6 points per game over the last seven weeks. Even more remarkable has been the fact that rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has led the unit, throwing 12 touchdowns with only nine interceptions.

Rookie quarterbacks are not supposed to succeed in the NFL, but don’t tell that to Flacco or Atlanta’s Matt Ryan who have their teams in the playoff race.

That’s fine, but Baltimore was crushed by Indianapolis and the New York Giants!

There’s no disputing this. The Ravens have lost six straight games to Indianapolis and have yet to find an answer for the Colts’ high-powered offense. However, the defense was missing cornerback Samari Rolle and was playing with an injured Chris McAlister, who has since been placed on injured reserve.

Rolle has since returned and the emergence of Fabian Washington at the other corner has helped to solidify the secondary. Does this mean the Ravens would definitely beat the Colts in a rematch? Of course not, but keep in mind that Flacco was only making his second career road start at the time.

The Giants thoroughly demolished the Ravens, rushing for more yards against a Ravens’ defense than any team since 1997. Baltimore was playing its third straight road game. And, oh yeah, the Giants are the best team in the NFL. Anyone that expected the Ravens to win this game was being unrealistic.

The Ravens’ two other losses came against Pittsburgh and Tennessee, considered by many as the class of the AFC. Baltimore lost by a total of six points, holding second half leads in both contests.

Both of these games took place early in the season when the offense was still finding its way with a rookie under center. Flacco has grown leaps and bounds since early October.

While the Ravens narrowly came up short against the top two teams in the AFC, does this mean they don’t deserve to be mentioned as a contender?

The numbers suggest they do.

While critics regularly mention the Ravens have only beaten two teams with a current winning record (Miami and Philadelphia), the other top teams in the AFC aren’t exactly beating the 1972 Dolphins every week.

The 11-1 Titans have beaten three teams that currently have a winning record (Minnesota, Baltimore, and Indianapolis).

And while the 9-3 Steelers are coming off an impressive victory over the New England Patriots, the only other teams they had beaten with a current winning record are Baltimore and Washington.

The other top AFC competitors, the New York Jets and the Colts, have each beaten four teams with current winning records.

What can we conclude by these findings? The “haven’t beaten anyone good” argument being used against Baltimore is not as convincing when you see how few “good” teams the other top teams in the conference have beaten.

Every team plays its share of strong and weak teams in the NFL. While strength of schedule can vary, the discrepancy between teams is rarely eye-opening like it can be in college football.

The Ravens’ schedule has been favorable to say the least, but it cannot be held against them.

In addition to looking at the schedule of opponents itself, another helpful statistic to gauge how “good” a winning team really is is total net points, comparing the number of points a team scores to the points it allows. This statistic can often expose the pretenders that are barely squeaking by poor teams and being blown out by superior teams as well as the teams with very poor defenses.

For example, the Indianapolis Colts are at +7 for net points, supporting what many have said about the Colts’ offense struggling to produce as many points as they have in past seasons. While the Colts haven’t been blown out, a 10-6 win over the Cleveland Browns isn’t exactly inspiring. Many critics believe this will doom the Colts in the playoffs.

The 7-5 Denver Broncos lead the AFC West but stand at -27, a result of having one of the worst defenses in the NFL, a reality that will likely cost the Broncos in January.

The top teams for net points in the league are not surprisingly the Giants (+146) and the Titans (+129), but who comes next? The Ravens at +102, three points better than the Steelers.

Does this mean the Ravens are the third best team in the league and are better than the Steelers? As with any stat, it is only one piece of the puzzle to consider, but it suggests the Ravens are a better team than many are giving them credit for.

What we can conclude by the Ravens’ favorable net points difference is not only are the Ravens beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, but they’re also dominating them. This is what great teams do.

The Ravens are doing exactly what needs to be done to compete for a playoff spot in the NFL: beat the teams you’re supposed to beat and hold your own against tougher opponents.

The Ravens have not lost a game to a team with a losing record, something they always seemed to do once or twice a year in the past, sometimes even costing them a playoff spot as it did in 2004.

The question of how serious a contender the Ravens can be remains unanswered, but the last four weeks will provide a clearer picture.

Starting with Sunday night’s game against the Washington Redskins in Baltimore, the Ravens will play three straight teams with winning records before finishing the regular season against Jacksonville.

If the Ravens can win two of three against Washington, Pittsburgh, and Dallas, they will be guaranteed a Wild Card spot with a win over the Jaguars at home on December 28.

Even a 2-2 record would give the Ravens a 10-6 mark and a likely playoff spot, but they would still be haunted by the same doubts of not being able to beat quality opponents.

The Ravens are beginning to show many signs of a great team. Just ask the battered Texans or the aching Bengals. Now, they’ll have to prove it to the NFL’s elite.

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