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The term “must-win” is used liberally in professional sports, but the Ravens have reached that reality with a 4-6 record and an opportunity to knock off the AFC’s current No. 6 seed-leading New York Jets on Sunday afternoon.
Baltimore will play the first of three consecutive home games against beatable opponents in an effort to not only move to the positive side of the .500 mark but slide into position to grab a sixth straight playoff berth under head coach John Harbaugh. Meanwhile, the Jets are trying to reach the postseason for the first time since 2010 under head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Both teams have obvious flaws but remain in the mix for the postseason in a pool of eight teams that are either 5-5 or 4-6 entering Week 12. The Ravens and Jets will be meeting for the ninth time in the regular season with Baltimore holding a 7-1 advantage and a seven-game winning streak in the all-time series.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens look to improve to 5-6 before a short week leading into a Thanksgiving night game against Pittsburgh …
1. Facing the stingiest run defense in the NFL, the Ravens will struggle to average 3.0 yards per carry on Sunday. A 174-yard performance by the Baltimore running game in Chicago was an encouraging sign but came against the league’s 31st-ranked run defense in sloppy conditions. The rushing attack will need to be graded on a curve against a Jets defense allowing just 2.9 yards per carry, the lowest mark in the NFL since the 2007 Ravens. The goal will be to gain just enough yardage to keep New York honest, which will allow the Ravens to run play-action over the course of the game. Running back Ray Rice said it best earlier in the week in saying they must be willing to take what the Jets defense is allowing, whether it’s two yards or the opportunity to pick up 20. Center Gino Gradkowski and left guard A.Q. Shipley turned in strong performances with their run blocking last week, but the Jets defensive line will be a very difficult matchup on what’s expected to be a windy day.
2. Quarterback Joe Flacco will throw for 275 yards for the first time since Week 6. The Ravens will be involved in a game with wind being a factor for the third consecutive week, which would appear to favor the Jets given the strength of their run defense and running game. However, Flacco will be facing a pass defense that ranks 23rd in the league and felt the need to pick up the 35-year-old Ed Reed to stabilize the free safety spot. There’s no disputing that Flacco has played poorly since the Ravens’ Week 8 bye, but he will be needed to make plays on Sunday as the Jets have been vulnerable to giving up the big play this season, allowing 33 passes of 20 or more yards. The Baltimore quarterback will have to wait at least one more game for the return of tight end Dennis Pitta, but Flacco talked this week about the need for the Ravens to let loose in how they play and the Jets defense hasn’t been nearly as effective on the road, giving up an average of 33 points per game on the road.
3. Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson will collect 1 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble. Ryan has a sterling reputation for putting his best defensive players in position to thrive, and Wilkerson has blossomed into the face of the New York defense, collecting eight sacks and 53 tackles in a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman and Ryan like to move Wilkerson around on the defensive line, which will be a problem for a unit that’s struggled to call out proper protection assignments this season. Even if the Ravens manage to gain respectable yardage on the ground, the Jets will still attempt to tee off on Flacco with a pass rush facing an offensive line that’s given up 33 sacks this season. An ability to protect the football will be a critical factor in determining the outcome of Sunday’s game and Flacco will cough up a fumble when Wilkerson breaks free for a sack against shaky pass blocking.
4. The Baltimore defense will wreak havoc on rookie quarterback Geno Smith, forcing three turnovers. The Jets have been forced to lean heavily on their eighth-ranked running game while the rookie has failed to record a passer rating higher than 71.9 in any of his last five games and will be without top receiver Jeremy Kerley. As long as the Ravens don’t revert to the struggles they experienced earlier in the season when their run defense allowed 140 or more rushing yards in three of four games, the Jets won’t do enough on the ground to avoid putting the ball in Smith’s hands. The Ravens will need to turn in a defensive performance similar to the one against Cincinnati when they forced Andy Dalton into turning it over three times. Smith has thrown 16 interceptions and has lost four fumbles, which is a recipe for disaster playing at M&T Bank Stadium where the Ravens have allowed just under 13 points per game in four contests this season.
5. In a defensive struggle with touchdowns at a premium, experience at quarterback and the home-field advantage give the Ravens a 19-12 victory. Both the Ravens and Jets have experienced their share of struggles on the road as New York is 1-4 away from MetLife Stadium and the Ravens are 1-5 in that department, but Baltimore is 3-1 at home this year and has played sparking defense at M&T Bank Stadium. In a game featuring two above-average defenses but flawed offensive attacks, I’ll give the nod to the home team with the veteran quarterback in a low-scoring game. The Jets simply make too many mistakes and haven’t forced turnovers of their own all season, a trend that will continue on Sunday as the Ravens win a close one to put themselves in better position in a muddled wild-card race. An uphill path remains for the Ravens to reach postseason play, but tie-breaking wins over the Jets and Miami Dolphins could prove useful down the line if more wins are to follow one on Sunday.