The task is clear even if the obstacle standing in their way appears more daunting than a few weeks ago.
A win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night lands Baltimore in the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but the Ravens have much greater goals in mind, needing to win their final three games to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the first time in the 16-year history of the franchise. However, 6-7 San Diego suddenly looks more like the team it was projected to be at the start of the season after winning two straight to snap a horrific six-game losing streak and keep its faint playoff hopes alive.
As the Ravens return to Owings Mills to begin preparations for the Chargers on Wednesday, here are five thoughts to ponder about 10-3 Baltimore …
1. Now that Jimmy Smith has eight games under his belt following the ankle injury that sidelined him for six weeks, it’s time for the rookie to begin earning his first-round reputation. With No. 1 cornerback Lardarius Webb dealing with a turf toe injury that could sideline him for Sunday night’s game in San Diego, the Ravens’ top draft pick in April would make his first NFL start against the likes of tall receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Smith’s talent is obvious as the rookie has collected two interceptions in recent weeks and broke up two passes against Indianapolis on Sunday. However, you still find him guessing and being caught out of position from time to time. Coach John Harbaugh said it best on Monday in saying Smith is still learning to playing football at the professional level where his talent is often matched by the opposition. The biggest factor working in Smith’s favor in addition to his 6-foot-2 frame and athleticism? The Colorado product is more than confident in his ability, a trait shutdown corners need to have in the NFL.
2. He may never live up to his pre-accident potential, but it was nice to see linebacker Sergio Kindle making some strides against Indianapolis on Sunday. Given the relative state of health the Ravens had on Sunday, it was more than a surprise to see Kindle active for the first time since Week 4 when multiple injuries forced the second-year linebacker into action against the New York Jets. The former Texas standout performed well on special teams and even received some defensive snaps late in the second half. Many want to point to Kindle’s status as a second-round draft pick in 2010 in questioning why he hasn’t played this season and overlook the cruel fact that he nearly died in a fall down two flights of stairs in the days leading up to what was to be his first training camp a year ago. The accident left him virtually deaf in one ear and has forced Kindle to basically learn how to play football all over again, according to Harbaugh. In my conversations with Kindle through the course of the season, he expressed the need to put in the necessary work to earn playing time via special teams and conceded how difficult it was to iron out a role in such a talented defense. Kindle has clearly made some poor choices off the field, but you can’t help but root for him to carve out a spot on the team in which he can contribute on a more regular basis in the future. He may never be the defensive starter the Ravens envisioned when they drafted him, but a strong work ethic could turn him into a role player in the future.
3. John Harbaugh will offer a hand to his brother Jim, but insider trading tips are more common than you think. The elder Harbaugh was asked whether he would be on the phone giving extra information to the 49ers in anticipation of their Monday night showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers in San Francisco, and while he admitted there could be some of that, it’s not really an uncommon practice in the NFL. Head coaches and assistants alike are connected through a thick web of relationships with the high turnover rate in the career field, leading to open channels of communication. In reality, there are few secrets in the NFL, and it’s unlikely John will provide anything earth-shattering to his brother that would make a dramatic difference in Monday’s outcome. In addition to essentially assuring the Ravens of an AFC North title with a win over Pittsburgh, the 49ers desperately need a win to solidify their chances for the No. 2 seed in the NFC with New Orleans currently holding an identical 10-3 record.