Brad Fauber: Ravens facing crucial test

Anything can happen in the NFL’s AFC North Division in the final six weeks of the regular season.

No, really. It can.

The AFC North is the only division in which all four teams have a winning record, and the standings currently look like this: 1. Cincinnati (6-3-1), 2. Pittsburgh (7-4), 3. Baltimore (6-4), 4. Cleveland (6-4).

Talk about parity.

It’s been a very competitive year for the division as a whole, as the Browns have surprisingly joined the rest of the pack to create what I think is one of the most exciting divisional races in the league this season.

The AFC North is full of good teams, but none of them feel great. And that’s good news for the Ravens, who are a solid team, but simply not as strong as the Baltimore franchise has been in the past. The Ravens don’t feel well equipped to be a serious Super Bowl contender this winter, but they have just as good a shot as any to win the division, or at least return the playoffs after missing out on the postseason last year.

Baltimore will have its work cut out for it if it hopes to be playing football in January, however, as four of the Ravens’ final six games come against teams with a record of .500 or better heading into this Sunday’s slate of games. And one of those two teams with a losing record that Baltimore will face over the next six weeks is the Saints, a team that many thought would make a trip to the Super Bowl this season.

But the other three teams in the division face similar challenges over the remainder of the season, and the Bengals and Steelers still have to play each other twice in the final six weeks, which could help further open a door for Baltimore to at least snag a wild card spot.

The Ravens first need to take care of business on Monday night in New Orleans against the always-dangerous Drew Brees in what is a critical game for Baltimore’s playoff hopes. The Saints, at 4-6, may be one of the bigger disappointments in the NFL this season, but facing Brees and that offense — in the Superdome — is never a small task. The fact that the Ravens will be using a makeshift secondary against one of the best quarterbacks in the league only compounds the problem.

On the bright side, history has been on Baltimore’s side in this matchup. In his career, Brees has not beaten Ravens in three tries. And he’s looked pretty bad doing it. When he was with the Chargers in 2003, Brees threw three interceptions in a loss to Baltimore. With New Orleans in 2006, he threw three more picks against the Ravens. And in 2010, Brees threw a late-game interception in the Saints’ 30-24 loss.

Can the Ravens’ defense — which is allowing only 18.1 points per game but is 21st in the NFL in passing defense (251.2 yards/game) — continue that trend on Monday night in New Orleans?

In order to do that, the Ravens secondary, which outside of safety Will Hill features struggling corner Lardarius Webb, safety-turned-corner Anthony Levine and journeyman Danny Gorrer, will have to find some way to at least slow down the Saints enough to keep quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offense within striking distance.

New Orleans is averaging 26.1 points per game this season and has scored 20 or more points in four of its five home games. The Ravens are 1-4 this season when allowing at least 20 points.

There are still six games left, and as I said, anything can happen in the AFC North in that span. But according to ESPN, a win for Baltimore on Monday night would jump the Ravens’ chances of making the playoffs from 43 percent to 60 percent, while a loss would drop those chances to 33 percent.

Sounds pretty close to a must-win for me.

<p id=’reporter_info’>Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or <a href=’mailto:bfauber@nvdaily.com’>bfauber@nvdaily.com</a></p>