The next seven weeks could be the most pivotal stretch for the Ravens in a decade.
A strong finish — perhaps just an OK one — would send Baltimore to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and at least temporarily calm concerns about the long-term outlook of the organization. A poor finish would mean missing the postseason for the fourth time in five years and bracing to see how owner Steve Bisciotti might react after exercising much patience with head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome in recent years.
It’s difficult to predict who the Ravens really are with all four of their wins coming by multiple scores and each of their five defeats including double-digit deficits at some point during the contest. On the bright side, the Ravens face only three more opponents currently owning winning records, meaning they won’t be able to point to a difficult schedule if they’re on the outside looking in come early January. However, none of Baltimore’s four victories this season have come against teams currently above .500.
Below are five predictions for the remainder of the 2017 season:
1. Jimmy Smith will be named team MVP and be invited to his first Pro Bowl. Injuries have always prevented the 2011 first-round pick from reaching and sustaining greatness, but the veteran cornerback is in the midst of the best season of his career. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith carries the NFL’s lowest opponent passer rating in coverage and has graded as the fifth-best corner in football. You only hope the bye week was beneficial for the Achilles tendinitis he’s battled for much of the season, but he’s continued to play at an elite level despite that ailment. He’s been the Ravens’ best player.
2. Alex Collins will become Baltimore’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett in 2014. With a passing attack ranking last in the NFL in yards per game and yards per attempt, the Ravens must rush at a high level to win and the surprising Collins has been substantially better than anyone else carrying the ball with 521 rushing yards. Even with his lighter 210-pound frame, the second-year back should be poised for a heavy workload down the stretch after carrying the ball only 93 times so far this year. Collins won’t continue to average 5.6 yards per carry, but he’ll remain a major contributor.
3. Breshad Perriman will be a healthy scratch at some point down the stretch. The Ravens desperately want to see their 2015 first-round pick pan out, but it isn’t happening and he has regressed to the point that he’s hurting the team when the ball is thrown his way. After catching an underwhelming 50 percent of his targets last season (33-for-66), Perriman has caught just seven of the 27 passes thrown his way, a major reflection of a dysfunctional passing game. Unlike Chris Moore and Michael Campanaro, Perriman doesn’t contribute on special teams and isn’t playing with any confidence.
4. Joe Flacco will avoid full-season career lows in passing yards and touchdowns — barely. I’ve been critical of the handling of the offense since Anquan Boldin was traded and believe the organization has repeatedly failed to provide enough help for Flacco, but coaching and the personnel around him can’t fully explain him being one of the league’s worst statistical quarterbacks. He’s on pace to throw for 2,757 yards, fewer than both his rookie year and 2015 when he missed six games. He’ll pick up his production, but it’s tough not to feel Flacco is a broken product of his environment and injuries.
5. The Ravens will finish 8-8 for the second straight year and will hope other wild-card contenders in the AFC continue to struggle. The schedule is favorable, but John Harbaugh’s team hasn’t secured a three-game winning streak since the first three games of 2016 and has only one over the last three seasons combined, a reflection of the Ravens’ inability to sustain success. With one of the worst offenses in the league and a good defense that hasn’t yet found a way to be consistently great enough to carry the load, Baltimore isn’t built to stack win after win and will look back at the Week 6 home loss to Chicago with particular regret. Don’t be totally shocked, however, if the Ravens or another team sneaks into the AFC playoffs with an 8-8 record. Yes, the conference is that bad beyond the top few teams.