Despite losing nearly every conceivable and significant playoff tie breaker over the course of the 2014 season, against the Steelers, Bengals, and Chargers, the schedule Gods showed mercy upon the Baltimore Ravens down the stretch. After a tough home loss to the Chargers in week 13, the Ravens somehow were still in control of their playoff destiny if they were able to win out. The final four games of the season looked promising: a week 14 matchup against the Tannehill-led Miami Dolphins, a week 15 matchup against the woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars, a week 16 matchup against a quarterback challenged Houston Texans team, and then this upcoming week 17 matchup against the Cleveland Browns who are also in quarterback limbo. It is the NFL, no game’s outcome is certain, but still after floundering those several key tie-break and divisional opportunities, this final slate of games certainly looked manageable.
The Ravens went into this past Sunday’s matchup against the Texans in complete control of their playoff destiny, it was a two-step process:
Step 1: win against a team with a fourth string quarterback who hasn’t played all season and was re-signed the Monday before the game.
Step 2: In week 17, manage defeat the quarterback controversy cloud that is the Cleveland Browns, who may be starting a third quarterback this season – undrafted free agent quarterback Connor Shaw out of South Carolina.
Manage these two monstrous feats and the Ravens would punch their ticket to playoffville! (A lesser known aspect of the NFL playoffs: Playoffville is much like Olympic village for athletes during the Olympics, players in the playoffs get pampered between games and unlimited free McDonald’s) Surely, a team like the Ravens with a top 10 defense and the 11th ranked offense, as far as total yards, would be able to take care of business against the Texans and then be able to safety move on to the Browns.
Unfortunately, the Ravens hit a roadblock in the form of the Texans defense.
After two solid wins, at the Dolphins and at home to the Jaguars, the Ravens were severely outmatched this past weekend by J.J. Watt, the Texans’ defense, and Case Keenum. Case Keenum, a quarterback who had literally been up a tree hunting white tail deer the Sunday before this game.
This game was a disheartening loss for the Baltimore Ravens and the team was dismantled offensively. The Ravens couldn’t get anything going for the first three quarters of the game. Joe Flacco and Gary Kubiak could not find any answers for Romeo Crennel’s masterful defensive game plan. The Texans put pressure on the Ravens offense the entire game, blitzing on nearly 80% of the plays from scrimmage on defense. Joe Flacco looked how we thought Case Keenum would look, like a guy who hadn’t played football in a year and had lost his first eight starts in his NFL career. To put it simply, Gary Kubiak was outcoached in his return to Houston and Flacco either didn’t have the tools or didn’t have the wherewithal to adjust plays at the line according to what he was seeing. By the time Kubiak dialed up a few screens to wide receivers and running backs to stem the blitz pressure, there was only 7:38 left in the 4th quarter, the game was basically over, and the Texans had begun to fall back into a base zone coverage, relying on J.J. Watt and the front four to bring the heat.
Watt for the most part in this game was bottled up. He was his typical relentless self, but the Ravens line, in particular right tackle Rick Wagner who was a former teammate of Watt’s at Wisconsin, was stout against him. The most important aspect of Watt, and why I believe many are starting to believe in his candidacy for NFL MVP, is his impact on the rest of the players around him. Watt’s teammates along the defensive front, Jared Crick, Jerrell Powe, and Whitney Mercilus were able to cause problems and put extra pressure on Flacco because of the mere presence and attitude of Watt at the line. Until the 4th quarter when both Rick Wagner, now on Ravens IR, and Ravens’ left tackle Eugene Monroe went to the locker room with injuries, it was the pressure from those other defensive linemen around Watt and the blitz stunt packages performed by Brian Cushing and Akeem Dent that directly led Flacco to throw three interceptions and nearly every pass from off his back foot. Romeo Crennel and his game plan deserve the MVP of the game. His defense put on a clinic, exploiting Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offensive weaknesses, his play calling never let up until the game was out of reach for the Ravens.
If you are a Ravens fan, this is not the first time you have seen the team falter down the stretch or at a key moment in a season, but it does feel like this game is going to haunt the team. The way the game ended, Ravens players were coming off the field completely deflated. As they walked off the field and into the locker room, you could see the heartbreak in all of their eyes as they realized they let another significant game slip right through their grasp.
Including the aforementioned significant losses in their most recent divisional games to both the Steelers and Bengals, and now the losses to fellow playoff contenders in both the Chargers and Texans, the Ravens are 1-6 against AFC playoff contenders this season. No one can argue that this season has been one of the best offenses in the history of the Ravens franchise, and no one can argue that the Ravens do statistically have a top 10 defense, but they are not winning the crucial games on their schedule and have benefited from playing against the NFC south and AFC south this season. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but this team does not feel like it fits or is ready to be back there just yet, and after a loss as heart breaking as last weekend, the Ravens are done.
In their first 5 seasons together as a coach and quarterback, John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco went to the playoffs each of those seasons. Last year was the first time the duo had missed out on the post season tourney, due majorly to the major roster turn over after the Super Bowl. If this team does miss the playoffs for a second year in a row, I think it would be a blessing in disguise and something Ravens fans should look forward to and take with a grain of salt. The team Ravens are not ready to compete for a Championship again just yet. Aside from the obvious injury issues that have plagued the Ravens’ defensive backfield, the team is still struggling to find leaders. Since the departure of franchise stalwarts, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, the heart and soul of the franchise has been missing. Missing the playoffs and being able to take some time to evaluate losses like the one in Houston this past weekend should help the front office identify glaring leadership deficiencies on this team, and allow the organization to better address those deficiencies come the off season. The Ravens heart left with former players and J.J. Watt exemplified that fact on the field in week 16. Having extra time to reflect on tough losses builds character in players and within the organization. Maybe with this time they will be able to identify someone with the intangibles of a player like J.J. Watt, Ed Reed, or Ray Lewis, who are able to transcend their position, and garner MVP votes, due to making their entire team better. These are obviously once in a generation players, but their intangibles are not.
Looking forward, the Baltimore Ravens will play the Cleveland Browns this Sunday at 1PM EST. The Browns will be without 1st round draft pick Johnny Manziel and possibly even quarterback Brian Hoyer, who is still recovering from a hit he took against the Panthers in week 16. The Browns are eliminated from the playoffs, but the Ravens still have a chance to continue playing with a win. If the Ravens win, they will need the Kansas City Chiefs to defeat the San Diego Chargers in order to supplant the Chargers as the 6th seed in the AFC playoffs. For Ravens fans, the misery of waiting for results will all be over by 4PM EST, as the Chargers and Chiefs game is also at 1:00 PM EST, they will be playing at Arrowhead Stadium.