The Ravens will tell you every game is important.
That’s just reality when you’re 4-4 and haven’t won back-to-back games since the first two weeks of the season. Sunday’s trip to Tennessee might be the most pivotal game remaining on the schedule for an inconsistent team trying to gain traction in the quest for its first playoff berth since 2014. If you concede that Baltimore’s chances of catching first-place Pittsburgh appear bleak, the result against the Titans becomes even more critical in sizing up the AFC wild-card picture.
A win puts Baltimore a game above .500 entering the bye week with a reasonable schedule down the stretch with several opponents having messy quarterback situations. A loss would force the Ravens to win five of their final seven contests just to get to 9-7 and — even worse — would give both Tennessee and Jacksonville head-to-head tiebreaker advantages in the playoff pecking order.
“When it comes down to the ‘who’s in, who’s out’ [talk], it’s going to come down to these teams,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “We need this win. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that this year. We have some losses, obviously, but those losses are against teams that’s maybe not going to affect us going to the playoffs besides Jacksonville. We just need to continue to win, and we’ll get where we need to go.”
It’s time to go on the record as these onetime AFC Central rivals meet for the 19th time in the all-time regular-season series that’s tied 9-9, but the Ravens are 2-1 in postseason encounters. The Titans own a 5-4 record in home games against Baltimore dating back to 1996.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Tight ends and edge defenders will be the deciding factors in this game. This is a rather bland proclamation, but Tennessee’s best pass-catcher is tight end Delanie Walker, who is questionable to play with an ankle injury. Six of the nine touchdown passes allowed by the Ravens defense this season have been to tight ends. Meanwhile, Nick Boyle is also questionable after missing the entire week of practice with a toe injury. His blocking has been a critical part of Baltimore’s seventh-ranked running game. Both rushing attacks depend on popping outside runs for chunk yardage, and the Ravens have been inconsistent setting the edge and have occasionally lost containment against mobile quarterbacks.
2. The Ravens will be held under 100 rushing yards for just the third time this season. Head coach John Harbaugh deemed Boyle a game-time decision Friday, but it’s tough envisioning him playing without any practice, putting much pressure on the remaining group of tight ends as run blockers. Tennessee ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per carry allowed, so the surprising Alex Collins could have his hands full should Boyle not be on the field. The matchup between guards James Hurst and Matt Skura and Titans defensive linemen Jurrell Casey and DaQuan Jones will be crucial with the latter two having the advantage on paper.
3. Marcus Mariota will throw for a touchdown and run for another. The Titans’ bye week came at the perfect time for their quarterback, who had been hampered with a hamstring injury and is no longer listed on the injury report. He is much more dangerous as a passer when he moves from the pocket and can improvise with an ordinary group of receivers. Baltimore’s pass defense has been its biggest strength, but Terrell Suggs and the young pass rushers must be disciplined trying to get by Titans offensive tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin to prevent Mariota from hurting them with his legs.
4. Joe Flacco will find Wallace for a long touchdown pass. The Ravens quarterback has been at his best this year when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has designed pass plays to get him on the move instead of remaining static in the pocket, so that needs to continue if the league’s 32nd-ranked passing attack is ever going to grow. The Titans are vulnerable in the secondary and rank 19th in the NFL against the pass, so the Ravens need to use the run game and play fakes to get the defense out of two-high safety looks. If they do that, Wallace will be able to slip past rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson.
5. Baltimore will come up short in a 20-16 loss to the Titans. This is the kind of game a playoff hopeful reflects upon at the end of the season as a deciding factor in whether a team is playing in January or watching the playoffs on the couch. The Ravens have proven to be capable of playing at a high level with four wins decided by 13 or more points, but those performances have been soiled by some real clunkers in defeat. I’d normally like the Ravens’ chances more with extra rest against a decent — but hardly special — opponent, but Tennessee coming off its bye week wipes away that potential advantage. A key takeaway or a big special-teams play could certainly swing the outcome, but the healthier Titans playing at home will get the job done as the Ravens go into the bye with much work to do.