Brad Fauber: Ravens primed to make playoffs

Brad Fauber

About a month ago, I wrote about the Baltimore Ravens and how their playoff chances in the ultra-competitive AFC North hinged on an important road game against the Saints.

The Ravens went on to win that Monday Night Football game in New Orleans on Nov. 24, which started a run in which Baltimore won three of its next four games, the lone loss coming in a meltdown at home against the Chargers after the Ravens held a late lead.

With two games left in the NFL regular season, the Ravens seem like all but a lock to make the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons under head coach John Harbaugh.

Baltimore is currently tied with the Steelers at 9-5 and would grab the sixth and final postseason seed in the AFC if the season ended today. Both the Ravens and the Steelers are right on the heels of the 9-4-1 Bengals for the division lead, and Baltimore and Pittsburgh could leapfrog Cincinnati this week as the Bengals face a tough test against the Broncos at home on Monday night.

The Bengals and Steelers are also scheduled to meet in Week 17, which could further open the door for the Ravens to take sole possession of the AFC North’s top spot.

But regardless of what the teams around them do on the field over the next two weeks, the Ravens’ road to the playoffs is simple — win and they’re in, and anything less than a pair of wins to close out the regular season would be deemed a major letdown for Baltimore.

The Ravens face two very beatable teams over the next two weekends, beginning Sunday with the Texans. Houston is a .500 team at 7-7, but the Texans will be trotting out either Thad Lewis or Case Keenum at quarterback this weekend, neither of which was on Houston’s roster to start the season.

Baltimore then closes out the regular season with a home game against the Browns (7-7), a team that has lost three straight and looked terrible when Johnny Manziel took over the quarterback job last week against the Bengals.

Assuming the Ravens do make the playoffs, they could be in position to make some noise in the postseason. I admit that I haven’t been very high on this team this season, but Baltimore is sneaky good.

Quarterback Joe Flacco often gets lost among the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings and Aaron Rodgers of the league, but he’s quietly having one of the best — if not the best — seasons of his career. Flacco has completed 301 of 469 passes (64.2 percent) for 3,479 yards, 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions, and he seems to get better as the situation becomes more important (his 2012 Super Bowl MVP run is among the greatest individual playoff performances in NFL history).

It looks like the addition of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. gave Flacco a weapon he missed terribly last season after the Ravens traded away Anquan Boldin — a physical receiver who can make the underneath catches in traffic — and Torrey Smith’s reemergence after a slow start to the season has brought great results for Flacco and Baltimore’s offense.

The presence of a reliable running game has been a big boost as well, as Justin Forsett has come from virtual anonymity to rush for 1,128 yards so far in 2014, a mark good for fifth in the NFL.

Defensively, the Ravens are solid considering some of the injuries they’ve experienced this season. Baltimore is currently third in the league in rush defense (84.3 yards per game) and total sacks (45), and the Ravens are allowing only 19.1 points per game, a mark good for sixth in the league.

The biggest question mark remains the Ravens’ secondary, as injuries have decimated the defensive back position. Baltimore is allowing 259.9 passing yards per game, the third-worst total in the NFL, and they have only nine interceptions all season. But Baltimore’s secondary has done enough to win, and they will continue to be helped out by a Ravens pass rush led by Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (11 sacks).

Baltimore still has two games left and must take care of business in order to make the playoffs. But if the Ravens do make it to the postseason, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see them make another deep run.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com