If we’re being honest, this space has become a punchline so far in 2015.
Incorrectly picking the final outcome of four of the Ravens’ first five games — including the last four in a row — doesn’t inspire confidence when trying to forecast Sunday’s meeting with the San Francisco 49ers. Of course, no one predicted Baltimore to be 1-4 for the first time in franchise history, either.
Only six of the 121 teams to begin a season with a 1-4 record have gone on to make the playoffs since 1990. For now, the Ravens are simply trying to win a game despite an extensive list of key players dealing with injuries.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens meet the 49ers in a meaningful game for the first time since Super Bowl XLVII, which feels much longer than just three years ago for both teams. Counting the 34-31 win in New Orleans, Baltimore holds a 4-1 edge against the 49ers and the teams are tied 1-1 playing in San Francisco. Sunday will mark the Ravens’ first trip to Levi’s Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50 in February.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens attempt to win their seventh consecutive game against an NFC opponent …
1. Torrey Smith will draw a long pass interference penalty and catch a touchdown against his former team. The 49ers have struggled in the passing game due to the inconsistency of Colin Kaepernick, but the Ravens don’t have a cornerback who can run with the fifth-year wideout since Jimmy Smith is still trying to regain his pre-surgery form with his foot. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to provide as much safety help as possible, but the University of Maryland product will catch a touchdown to exact some revenge after the Ravens made little effort to re-sign him in the offseason. The league’s 25th-ranked pass defense will also draw a flag trying to keep up with the speedster.
2. New Ravens cornerback Shareece Wright will see extensive time in the nickel package. With Lardarius Webb doubtful and Will Davis out for the year, Baltimore was trying to bring Wright up to speed as quickly as possible this week. Simplifying schemes might be the best idea for all members of the secondary considering how inconsistent the group has been with technique and coverage assignments. Unlike Kyle Arrington and Asa Jackson, Wright is viewed as more of an outside cornerback, which is something the Ravens need right now. Expectations shouldn’t be very high for Jimmy Smith’s high school teammate, but that’s no different than the rest of the group at this point.
3. Rookie Buck Allen will score his first NFL touchdown as he leads the Ravens in rushing. Even if Justin Forsett does play on Sunday, Baltimore promoting practice-squad member Terrence Magee doesn’t instill confidence that the veteran will have a full workload. Allen had struggled before breaking a 44-yard run against Cleveland, but the Ravens hope that’s the start of the fourth-rounder finding a groove. With No. 2 back Lorenzo Taliaferro done for the season, the Ravens need Allen to step up immediately and he will do that to some degree on Sunday. Against the league’s 17th-ranked run defense, the offensive line will open running lanes and Allen will build on what he did in Week 5.
4. Brandon Williams will collect another sack and three tackles for a loss. The third-year nose tackle has been Baltimore’s best defensive player by a wide margin in 2015 and will be going up against 49ers center Marcus Martin and right guard Jordan Devey, who have been liabilities in 2015. San Francisco wants to feed the ball to running back Carlos Hyde as much as possible, but Williams presence in the middle of the defensive line will make that a difficult proposition. If Ravens outside linebackers can contain the edges and prevent Kaepernick from taking off, Williams will provide plenty of heat in early-down situations and pick up his second sack of the season at some point.
5. Joe Flacco will bounce back from his 2015 fourth-quarter struggles to give the Ravens the edge in a 24-21 win. It’s easy to pick on the eighth-year quarterback for having the worst fourth-quarter passer rating in the NFL this season, but who has he been able to trust to throw to beyond Steve Smith, who hasn’t been out there for the fourth quarter the last two games? Flacco does need to be better in the final quarter, but he can’t do it by himself. The Ravens will take advantage going up against the league’s 31st-ranked defense to make enough plays late in the game to secure a victory. Am I confident in that prediction? You never are when you’re 1-4, but the 49ers are 1-4 and have looked much worse than the Ravens with three of their four losses being by double digits.