Saturday, December 27, 2008

Jaguars-Ravens: Baltimore Hoping to Fly into Playoffs

With a trip to the playoffs at stake, the Baltimore Ravens hope to insert a new chapter in the city's storied football history when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

The day marks the 50th anniversary of the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” a 23-17 overtime victory for the Baltimore Colts in the 1958 NFL Championship Game.

While many former Colts will be in attendance for a halftime ceremony honoring the 1958 team, the Ravens are focused on creating history of their own.

Following a 5-11 season in 2007, new coach John Harbaugh has led the Ravens to a 10-5 record, needing only a win over the Jaguars to capture the last wild-card spot in the AFC Playoffs.

On the opposing side, the Jaguars are playing out the string with a disappointing 5-10 record after high expectations entering the 2008 campaign.

Earlier in the week, vice president of player personnel James "Shack" Harris resigned, adding further uncertainty to the organization’s tumultuous season. The news of Harris’ departure supplements the impending change within the organization.

Notable veterans such as middle linebacker Mike Peterson and tackle Khalif Barnes are unlikely to return to the team that advanced to the AFC Divisional Round only a year ago.

Complementing the off-the-field distractions is the failure of the Jaguars’ offense. Quarterback David Garrard has turned the ball over more frequently than he did last season, and the running game ranks 18th in the league, numbers that do not bode well for any visitor coming to play the Ravens’ second-ranked defense.

The Baltimore defense is +9 in turnover difference, good for third in the NFL. Look for the Ravens defense to pressure Garrard into making mistakes with safety Ed Reed looming in the secondary.

Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is expected to play, but he will have a difficult time gaining consistent yardage on the ground against the Ravens’ front seven.

Despite this, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will need to be aware of Jones-Drew’s receiving prowess, as he leads all running backs with 61 catches and 555 receiving yards.

The Ravens’ 21st-ranked offense will face more of a challenge from the Jacksonville defense, 12th overall.

The rushing attack received a boost last week with long touchdown runs by Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain in the final minutes of their win over Dallas.

The Ravens can be a scary team in January if McGahee can regain some of last year’s form. Last week’s game was a good sign.

Rookie Ray Rice hopes to return to the field after missing the last two games with a shin injury. The Ravens would like to have Rice on the field to get back into rhythm in hopes of a playoff run.

Rice provides more of a receiving threat out of the backfield than either McClain or McGahee.

The Jacksonville defense is vulnerable in the secondary, giving up 25 touchdown passes this season, so expect quarterback Joe Flacco to test the Jaguars with the deep ball.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would like to see Flacco follow up his solid performance against Dallas with strong production in the regular season finale. Flacco has not thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game since Week 13.

Wide receiver Derrick Mason continues to battle the effects of an injured shoulder expects to play on Sunday. Mason has been the team’s most valuable player on offense, aiding in the rapid development of Flacco.


All signs in this one point to a Ravens’ blowout in the regular season finale.

The crowd will be in full-fledged playoff mode with an extra boost from the halftime celebration of the 1958 champion Colts.

The Ravens have everything to play for in this one while the Jaguars are thinking about how to spend their upcoming vacation time.

The Ravens will go up early thanks to the legs of Le’Ron McClain and some big gains through the air. When they do, the Jaguars will begin going through the motions, leading to the Ravens taking ultimate control.

Perhaps the Jaguars’ best chance in this one would be for the Buffalo Bills to upset the New England Patriots in the early game, which would clinch the last playoff spot for the Ravens prior to Sunday's kickoff.

Harbaugh might be more inclined to rest veterans such as Mason and Ray Lewis if the team’s playoff ticket is already punched, but even that might not be enough for the Jaguars to win in Baltimore.

The prediction: Ravens 27-10

Can the Ravens secure the last wild-card spot in the AFC? Or will the Jaguars play spoiler to close out their disappointing season? Leave your comments and predictions below.

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