It’s been a tale of two months for the Ravens.
A 3-0 September brought much optimism before an 0-4 October littered with injuries dramatically changed the tone of the season. All seven games were decided by a single possession, but offensive struggles, costly penalties, and questionable decision-making should have everyone — the front office, coaches, and players — feeling the heat as the Ravens face the prospects of missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four years, which hasn’t happened since Brian Billick was fired at the end of 2007.
There is reason for optimism, however, with the Ravens trailing first-place Pittsburgh by just one game in the AFC North and still having five division games ahead. On the flip side, five of their final nine games come against teams currently sporting winning records and only one — their Week 10 meeting with Cleveland — is against a team with a worst record than their own 3-4 mark entering the weekend.
While inviting you to laugh at my preseason prophecies for the 2016 Ravens, I offer five updated predictions for the second half of the 2016 season …
1. Joe Flacco will throw for 4,000 yards for the first time in his career and bounce back somewhat from a rough first half. It’s no secret that Flacco has struggled behind an injury-riddled offensive line and without top receiver Steve Smith, but some help should come after the bye. A more consistent running game is a must as Flacco is on pace to finish with a career-high 704 passing attempts and is averaging a career-worst 5.96 yards per attempt. If the Ravens offense can keep their starting line on the field, Flacco should be able to improve his efficiency with fewer attempts and more runs. That said, it will be ironic that he’ll finally eclipse the 4,000-yard mark in one of his worst seasons.
2. Darren Waller will emerge as a surprise offensive weapon in the second half. Many have discussed Kenneth Dixon taking on a bigger role, but Terrance West has done all he can to cement his status as the starter for now, which may limit the rookie’s opportunities until he can show the explosiveness he had in the summer. This offense is in need of presenting tougher matchup problems, and Waller seems to be a solid candidate as a former receiver with good size and athleticism at the tight end position. Dennis Pitta’s comeback has been a great story, but Waller has more big-play upside at this point and could be an intriguing weapon inside the red zone, an area where Baltimore has struggled.
3. The Ravens will snap their drought against Cincinnati, but road woes will cost them the rest of the way. It’s been nearly three full calendar years since Baltimore beat the Bengals, but Marvin Lewis’ team has had its own issues this season and is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. In a few weeks, the Ravens will snap their five-game losing streak against a Bengals team not sporting as much talent as in recent years. However, road games against Dallas, New England, and Pittsburgh spell bad news for a team with little margin for error despite starting 2-0 on the road. The Ravens have shown little evidence this season of being capable of beating a good team on the road.
4. Jimmy Smith will continue to recapture his 2013-14 form with a strong second half. Lost in the disappointment of the losing streak has been the recent improvement of Smith, who played well against Odell Beckham Jr. — who exploded only after Smith sustained a concussion — and Brandon Marshall in the last two games. This might be the best the 2011 first-round pick has looked since before his 2014 foot surgery. No matter how the Ravens fare the rest of the way, Smith needs to play at a high level as he is slated to carry the second-highest salary cap figure on the team in 2017. This organization can’t afford to have another high-priced contract fail them like others have over the last few years.
5. The Ravens will lament their winless October as they finish with a 7-9 record. Baltimore isn’t as bad as its four-game losing streak reflects, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens will improve enough to qualify for the playoffs as they try to stay healthy after the bye. Yes, they’re in every game with 21 of their last 23 contests decided by only one score, but isn’t that a textbook profile of a .500 team? This roster is too dependent on aging players now struggling to stay healthy and doesn’t have enough high-impact young players ready to be a part of the next great Ravens team. The current team isn’t special and doesn’t show much evidence of being on the verge of something special, which is a frustrating place for a proud organization to be.