The Ravens missed their opportunity to clinch a playoff spot upon losing to Pittsburgh last week, but they’ll have another chance Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
Only they’ll need help this time around as Pittsburgh or Cincinnati needs to lose in addition to a Ravens win at FedEx Field to punch Baltimore’s ticket to the postseason for the fifth straight year. The Ravens can also clinch the AFC North title with a win coupled with losses by both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens attempt to improve to 4-1 all-time against the Redskins and remain in good position to earn the No. 2 seed in the conference …
1. Redskins running back Alfred Morris will run for 100 yards with Baltimore’s injuries at the linebacker position. The rookie running back has thrived in the shadow of his quarterback and has rushed for 1,106 yards this season to lead the top run offense in the NFL. The Baltimore run defense is suspect even at full strength and with inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe out and Terrell Suggs’ status in question after he suffered a torn right biceps last week, Morris may find plenty of room on the edges. Albert McClellan normally plays well against the run at the strongside linebacker spot, but he’ll be forced to slide inside in place of Ellerbe, potentially leaving rookie Courtney Upshaw and pass-rush specialist Paul Kruger to man the outside linebacker spots more extensively if Suggs potentially limited or inactive. This doesn’t bode well against Washington’s tendency to use the pistol formation and the option attack.
2. Tight end Dennis Pitta has 70 receiving yards as the Ravens expose the Washington defense over the middle of the field. The Redskins are weak at the safety spot and will be without normal No. 3 corner Cedric Griffin, meaning they will be vulnerable in the middle intermediate portion of the field. This is where Pitta and possession receiver Anquan Boldin normally thrive, and the Ravens would like to get their tight end more involved after a very quiet performance against Pittsburgh. Inside linebacker London Fletcher has also been slowed by an ankle injury, which could be another problem for the Redskins if the Ravens use three-wide sets and can match Pitta against the veteran linebacker. New York Giants tight end Martellus Bennett had five catches for 82 yards and a touchdown against Washington last week, and similar numbers for Pitta wouldn’t be surprising.
3. Robert Griffin III throws for 200 yards and a touchdown in another strong performance from the Redskins’ rookie quarterback. Without knowing how productive Suggs will be or whether the five-time Pro Bowl selection will even be on the field, it’s difficult to expect much from the Ravens’ pass rush, which may not be the end of the world with Griffin’s ability to leave the pocket and scramble. The question will be whether the Baltimore secondary can cover Pierre Garcon and other Redskins wide receivers efficiently enough to force the rookie quarterback to become anxious in the pocket. Cary Williams, Corey Graham, and Chykie Brown need to prevent the big play, but Griffin will still have sufficient time to make plays with short and intermediate passes like Charlie Batch did for Pittsburgh last week. Safety Ed Reed is normally licking his chops against a rookie signal caller, but Griffin has only thrown four interceptions all year. Washington’s success with the running game will once again alleviate pressure on the Redskins quarterback, who will have another strong afternoon.
4. Unlike his last road game in San Diego, quarterback Joe Flacco won’t wait until the fourth quarter in offering his most consistent performance of the season away from M&T Bank Stadium. I’ve waited all year for the fifth-year quarterback to have a dominating performance on the road, and he certainly provided a terrific fourth quarter and overtime in San Diego two weeks ago. However, the Ravens need Flacco to play well throughout the game on Sunday to give them their best chance to win against a Redskins team that should be able to score points. Washington has the 31st-ranked pass defense in the NFL and is undermanned in the back end on top of that. There are no excuses for Flacco this week as the Ravens have little margin for error the rest of the way if they want to earn a first-round bye for the second straight season. Whether it’s the law of averages or simply buying stock in the quarterback to bounce back from a clunker as he often has in the past, I expect Flacco to take advantage of a favorable matchup to throw for over 200 yards and two touchdowns. If he doesn’t, the Ravens will likely find themselves with a 9-4 record and a quarterback facing even louder questions and doubts next week.
5. The Ravens haven’t lost consecutive games since Oct. 2009 and will find a way to prevail in a 27-24 victory over Washington. I’m not sure how the Baltimore defense is going to slow down Griffin and the Washington running game, but the Ravens offense has no excuse to be anything but productive against the Redskins defense. Many media and fans will call for Ray Rice to receive 25 carries and for the Ravens to grind it out on the ground, but Washington is strong against the run and weak in the secondary. It will be a close game in Landover, but it’s never a good idea to doubt coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens when they feel like their backs are against the wall. The Steelers loss puts them in that position as they’re now tied with New England and Denver for the second-best record in the AFC. Meanwhile, Washington has won three straight and needs to keep winning to have any real shot at the postseason. With both teams feeling they need a win, I’ll go with experience and the Ravens finding a way to secure a victory.