Ravens may not be pretty, but playoff hopes looking bright

November 21, 2017 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens aren’t a pretty football team.

You’d be hard-pressed to argue that they’re good as they own a mediocre 5-5 record, haven’t won back-to-back games in over two months, and rank 13th in the AFC in strength of victory, a reflection of not owning a single win against a team currently sporting a winning record. Having one of the worst offenses in the NFL certainly doesn’t help the overall perception — or make it any easier to win football games.

But here the Ravens stand holding the final wild-card spot in the AFC playoff picture entering Thanksgiving. And a look around the rest of the conference leaves you doubting the capabilities of any others in the “second division” to seriously challenge for that No. 6 seed.

“Win, and it will take care of itself,” said head coach John Harbaugh, whose team plays only two more opponents currently holding winning records the rest of the way. “It’s not like we don’t know what’s happening. We certainly know who does what.”

While their remaining schedule and the ineptitude of other so-called wild-card contenders might be the biggest factors working in the Ravens’ favor entering the final stretch, their defense is certainly playing at a playoff-caliber level after recording its third shutout of the year in Green Bay. No matter who the opposing quarterback is, that’s not a feat to be taken lightly, especially on the road.

The Ravens lead the NFL with 16 interceptions and are tied for first in takeaways (23) with Jacksonville. Their second-ranked pass defense is allowing the fewest passing yards per game by a Baltimore unit since 2008. And though the run defense still ranks only 17th in yards per carry allowed, the Ravens have surrendered only 2.94 yards per rushing attempt over the last three games as Brandon Williams has settled back in as the anchor of the defensive line after his four-game absence.

The defense continues to chase consistency — the final touchdown surrendered at Tennessee is a recent exhibit of that — but ranking sixth in the league in yards allowed and third in points surrendered makes a pretty strong case that the group is peaking at the right time and can carry the offense-challenged Ravens to the postseason for the first time in three years. The three shutouts are one shy of the four recorded by the 2000 Ravens, regarded by many as one of the greatest defenses of all time.

“It don’t mean s–t if we don’t make the playoffs,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “It’s good, but if we don’t get in [the playoffs], you all won’t even remember them. It’s a good thing to build on, but we’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to keep getting these wins.”

Continuing to win would be easier if the league’s 31st-ranked offense can show any semblance of improvement down the stretch. Despite the five-turnover, six-sack output from the defense against the Packers, the Ravens compiled just 219 yards on 57 offensive plays, finished 3-for-14 on third down, and managed only three points off three first-half turnovers at Lambeau Field.

Even without left tackle Ronnie Stanley in the lineup, that’s just not good enough if the Ravens have any visions of making a meaningful playoff run. They must rediscover their running game after averaging less than 3.4 yards per carry in three of their last four games, and it’s going to take much more than the return of running back Danny Woodhead for this passing game to be considered even mediocre.

The defense might be strong enough to carry the Ravens to victory in any of their six remaining games, but the offense is also inept enough to lose each of those contests, making these final six weeks all the more unsettling despite the favorable circumstances.

You can’t and shouldn’t blame quarterback Joe Flacco for all of the offensive struggles, but now would be the time for something more closely resembling “January Joe” to start getting revved up with December rapidly approaching. Even with the many variables working against him, Flacco must be better.

Their third road win of the season and a very favorable environment in the AFC have established the Ravens as clear-cut playoff contenders, but they still have a long way to go to prove they can be any sort of a viable threat to make noise if left standing in January.

Their circumstances for a playoff push may be pretty, but the Ravens certainly aren’t.