With 8 games in the win column already, and a quarter of the season still remaining, these Ravens have taken the league, the media, and even their most devoted fans very much by surprise.
Let’s be honest here, none of us saw this coming. Not on January 1st when the Ravens were without a head coach for the first time in nearly a decade, or a few weeks later when they were spurned by Jason Garrett; regarded by many to be the cream of the prospective head coaching crop. No one thought that this season was possible when free agency came and went with the Ravens only signing a few special teamers.
When the Ravens went into the draft in April (I know, we should know better than to question the team’s approach to the draft), but when they went into the draft and appeared to draft for depth, rather than to improve the 5-11 team that they put on the field last season, none of us could have believed that the turnaround would come this quickly. And certainly when training camp came around, and the infirmary report looked like a who’s who of the active roster, all of us had to be bracing for a long season in 2008. And all of that says nothing about the degree of difficulty that the schedule seemed to add to the playoff hopes of this team, seemingly in great transition already.
Having said all of that, I know for certain that there are people out there who refused to see the glass as half empty. Those who against all odds predicted a playoff run this year, my wife for example has been assuring me that the Ravens were going to the Superbowl from the day that Joe Flacco was given the reigns to start the season. Even those who were selling that hope however, were feeling the need to qualify their opinions with what seemed like a mountain of unlikely ifs. If the offensive line was able to come together quickly, if Joe Flacco was able to play better than any rookie should etc., etc. etc. My wife, by the way, simply believes in miracles, and doesn’t spend much time dissecting X’s and O’s, so that’s her reasoning.
Since the beginning of the season however, and particularly since their match up with the Colts in week 6, the landscape has changed dramatically. And with it, the expectations have changed as well, and with just 4 games remaining, and their destiny in their own hands, I can’t help but wonder what the fan reaction would be if the bottom dropped out now.
Looking at the standings, that’s pretty much what it would take to derail this team’s playoff hopes at this point. At 8-4 the Ravens still sit a game behind the Steelers, yet very much alive, in the chase for the AFC North. Obviously, losing to them in two weeks would put the Ravens virtually out of the hunt for the division. Assuming that the Ravens are able to beat the Steelers in two weeks though, both teams are by no means assured to win out, and a tie for the division might be possible.
Barring a dramatic upset for either of these teams, it’s presumable that the tiebreaker, between the Ravens and Steelers would come down to strength of victory. At that point, the Ravens would be aided by Pittsburgh’s loss to Philadelphia, whom the Ravens have beaten. A lot would also depend on the very tight races between the Dolphins and Patriots, and the Raiders and Chargers, which are the two teams’ uncommon victories.
The Steelers probably did the Ravens a favor on Sunday, by beating New England. The loss put the Patriots, and Dolphins, a full game behind the Ravens in the hunt for the final wildcard spot. In addition to their one game lead, the Ravens enjoy the simple tiebreaker over Miami by virtue of their head to head victory. They would hold the tiebreaker over New England too, since it would go first to conference record. The Patriots have lost all 5 of their games within the AFC, and with just 2 AFC games left; the Ravens could lose no more than 4.
On the Surface, it seems that both the Patriots and Dolphins have the better end of the schedule. But the Pats are getting ready to spend 2 weeks straight on the west coast, they didn’t deal with it so well last time. And the Dolphins have road games in 3 of the last 4, with 2 against teams still fighting for playoff contention themselves.
If the Ravens can beat Jacksonville to end the season, which should be easy considering that the Jags look like they’ve mailed it in weeks ago, and win just one of their other 3 games, then The Patriots, Dolphins or Bills would have to win out in order to get the wildcard. Everyone else would be out of contention.
So again, based on what we’ve seen so far this season from both the Ravens, and their wildcard competition, it would take a substantial meltdown in order to see this team miss the playoffs. And although I sincerely hope and believe that it won’t happen, I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if it did.
At the beginning of the season, 9-7 and narrowly missing the playoffs would have been welcomed with great surprise. Even 8-8 and a promise of meaningful football into week 16 at least, which is what they’ve assured us already, would have been regarded as a minor miracle. But a lot has changed since the beginning of the season, and the proverbial bar doesn’t go back down. It’s been raised now, as has the price of poker, and this young team looks up to the task.
There’s a playoff race going on after all, there’s no time to rest on your accomplishments now. They’ve spun a nice story already, but nice stories are a dime a dozen in the, “what have you done for me lately” NFL. If they failed to finish it now, they’d be remembered as a much different kind of story, that’s for sure. The Browns were a nice story last season, and look at them now.
The contenders are separating from the pretenders, and clearly these Ravens are not who we thought they were. The coming weeks will tell if they are who we think might be now. If they play the last quarter of the season like they’ve played in the last quarters of games, I’m not sure any of us knows just how good this team could be.