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Making only their second regular-season trip to Buffalo in the 18-year history of the franchise, the Ravens will try to move to 3-1 at the quarter pole despite a plethora of injuries and offensive inconsistency in the month of September.
At 1-2 and playing rookie EJ Manuel at quarterback, the Bills don’t appear to be a major threat on paper, but their losses to the Patriots and Jets were by a combined nine points and they possess the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the NFL. However, the Bills’ injury situation is even worse than the Ravens as they have already ruled out five players for Sunday’s game.
It’s time to go on record as these teams meet for the sixth time in the regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 3-2 edge. The Ravens are 0-1 at Ralph Wilson Stadium after dropping a 19-14 final there in 2007 but won the most recent meeting between Baltimore and Buffalo, a 37-34 overtime final at M&T Bank Stadium in 2010.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look for their first road win of the season …
1. The Ravens’ struggling running game will eclipse the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. Much has been made about the abysmal 2.6 yards per carry average on the ground — 31st in the NFL — but Baltimore has faced talented front sevens in each of the first three games. The Bills are tied for 30th against the run and gave up 182 yards on the ground to the Jets last week, leaving the Ravens no excuse to get their running game on track in Week 4. Ray Rice isn’t guaranteed to play, but backup Bernard Pierce will receive a larger-than-normal workload even if the former is available. Players and coaches continue to say the offensive line and running game are close to being righted and they’ll take a step in the right direction this week. A strong performance against the Bills doesn’t mean the running game is “fixed,” but it will make everyone feel a lot better.
2. Wide receiver Torrey Smith will exploit a banged-up Buffalo secondary for a long touchdown score. Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin and free safety Jairus Byrd are both listed as questionable and cornerback Stephon Gilmore is out for Sunday’s game, leaving what’s already a questionable secondary — ranked 19th in the NFL — that much flimsier. Smith is off to a strong start this season, but the Ravens have been forced to use him differently as he’s caught more short-to-intermediate passes and was even lining up in the slot a fair amount in the Houston game. However, the Ravens made it a point to go vertical to Smith early in the second half against the Texans and the big yardage eventually paid off with a touchdown later in the drive. The third-year wide receiver will find the end zone for the first time this season, adding to his already-impressive numbers through the first quarter of the year.
3. The Baltimore defense will surrender its first touchdown since the season opener, but Dean Pees’ unit will force two turnovers. The Ravens have made a major statement over the last two weeks to convince observers that the season-opening debacle was the aberration and not who they are defensively. However, Pees talked earlier in the week about his defense needing to force more turnovers as they only have three takeaways in their first three games, which is tied for 10th in the AFC. With the offense struggling to find its identity, the Ravens will need their defense to not only perform at a high level on a weekly basis but create short fields for their offensive counterparts. Manuel has thrown only one interception in his first three games, but a ferocious pass rush could force a sack-and-strip play if the rookie isn’t aware in the pocket and the secondary will be the benefactor of the pressure upfront. The Bills’ read option won’t give the Ravens too much trouble as there’s too much speed and discipline in the front seven for Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller to have huge days.
4. Flacco will continue his trend of posting pedestrian numbers while being efficient on third down and taking care of the football. Nothing about the Super Bowl XLVII MVP’s stats impress you or will garner Pro Bowl consideration to this point in the season, but you have to admire the way he’s played without his top two receiving options from last season. Beyond Smith, the Ravens lack speed at the wide receiver and tight end positions, making it a necessity for Flacco to read defenses better than ever and to trust what he sees. Flacco’s highest completion percentage (62.8 percent) has come on third down this season as the Ravens are converting 44.4 percent of their third-down opportunities (eighth in the NFL) with very little help from the running game. He won’t have a 300-yard game, but Flacco will throw two touchdowns and — just as importantly — won’t have any big turnovers to give the Bills a chance to swing the momentum of the game.
5. The Ravens won’t make it pretty, but they will remain in control in a 24-16 win to improve to 3-1. No one thinks the Bills are as good as Baltimore, but expecting the Ravens to blow out anyone — unless they have the benefit of a defensive score and a special-teams touchdown like last week — on the road with their inconsistent offense is wishful thinking until they prove otherwise. The running game will appear competent but is still a work in progress and Flacco will be efficient once again, but the defense will be the biggest reason why the Ravens will improve to 3-1. Buffalo appears to have potential with Manuel at the helm, but the rookie isn’t ready to deal with another relentless pass rush after he was sacked eight times by the Jets last week. The score will remain close, but the Ravens won’t struggle to the point of making you think they’re in serious danger of losing to Buffalo, either.