LiveBall Sports’ 2011 NFL Playoff Preview: The Baltimore Ravens can win the Super Bowl if…
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has suffered a significant statistical decline in his fourth season. I don’t think it’s that his development has stalled any, because Flacco seems more aware of the dangers of an NFL pocket than at any point in the past. I think this is a systematic decline. Flacco is at a point in his career where he is in transition between being an important missing piece on a perennial super bowl contender and being the quarterback and emotional leader of the Baltimore Ravens.
Flacco has improved in his decision making, ability to manipulate coverages, and pocket presence this season. But in the process of taking those handcuffs off, Flacco’s completion percentage has fallen to a barely playable 56.6%, and that has driven down Flacco’s yards per attempt more than a half yard to 6.7. Because how often a player completes passes and how many yards he completes passes for are the primary factors in how often a quarterback gets his team in the end zone, Flacco has thrown for only 15 TDs, a rate of 3.2%.
This statistical regression by a young quarterback isn’t unheard of. It got me thinking of the last time a quarterback had his fourth season numbers fall at or below his career averages while leading a team to the playoffs yet again. The name I came up with? Eli Manning. During the Giants super bowl season. If a player must take a step back before he can take the ‘Giant’ leap forward, Manning shows that Flacco may not be far away from perennial pro bowl consideration in the AFC. And after four long years of being invested in Flacco with limited return, following a decade since the last good season by a Baltimore quarterback (Vinny Testaverde, 1998), Flacco’s development could be a game changer for the Ravens franchise as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed near retirement.
What’s different for the Ravens this year? Well, you finally get the feeling that the offensive pieces to win the super bowl are finally on the roster. In other seasons you could make the case that the Ravens were capable making a super bowl run because of Ray Rice’s season in 2009, or because of the strength of the offensive line in 2008 or 2009. But even though Flacco’s numbers remained stagnant in 2010, Ray Rice really struggled behind an offensive line that also struggled. Flacco became a bit more tentative and cautious. Still, it seemed that the Ravens were hot at the right time and that 2010 should have been the year they represented the AFC in the super bowl. But in the second half of the divisional round in Pittsburgh, everything went wrong. The Ravens blew a huge halftime lead 8 minutes into the second half. And when a last ditch effort to tie the game fell short, it’s Pittsburgh who went on the short track to the super bowl again.
The Ravens may have been hurt more by the new kickoff rule than any other team this year: they had the kicker most proficient at booting touchbacks under the old rules (touchbacks just aren’t as valuable in 2011), and they have struggled with turnovers on kick returns this year. But offensively and defensively, the Baltimore Ravens have been a better team in 2011 than in 2010, and I think this is a fact that shocked anyone who saw their defense perform at the end of last year or even into this preseason. When you compare the independent facts that Baltimore really blew a great chance to go to the super bowl last year with the fact that they are a better team this year, it’s hard not to call the Baltimore Ravens the favorite in the AFC.
The Ravens, Texans, and Patriots are all tied in record and conference losses, so if all three teams won out, the seeding would be decided on the strength of victory tiebreaker (also, the Ravens have a head to head win over the Texans, should the Patriots fall out of this field one way or another). The Patriots don’t have a whole lot of wins over 10 win teams (the Jets will probably get there, and they have a shot to beat the Broncos this week) and have feasted on teams like the Dolphins, Colts, Eagles, Redskins and Chiefs. This while the Ravens have already beaten the Jets, Texans, 49ers, and Steelers twice, while a strength of victory tiebreaker favors the Ravens simply because their losses have come to teams without very many wins (Titans, Jaguars, and Seahawks).
An elite team would have won by blowout in all three of those games, and the Ravens did not. But it’s worth pointing out that the Ravens have blown out a number of their opponents this year, including Pittsburgh, who some think is the second best team in football, a potential playoff team in the Jets, and the Ravens also beat the Texans by a strong amount. But they also had to come back to win against the Cardinals at home.
Despite allegations of schizophrenia, the Ravens are poised and ready to be lead through the playoff field by Joe Flacco for the first time. Flacco made a career off of utilizing the unique talents of Derrick Mason, a remarkable veteran receiver up until this year. He now has players like Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta who complement each other with the depth of their preferred route. Tight end Ed Dickson is a good looking prospect, though to me it just isn’t clear how quickly he will develop (Dickson is averaging a shockingly low 9.5 yards per catch and just 3 TDs this season). Flacco’s offensive line is much improved, with RG Marshal Yanda having a pro bowl type of season.
And let’s play this game: lets say that New England and Pittsburgh make the playoffs, but are knocked out in the first round by some combination of the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, or New York Jets. Now in the AFC field, your starting quarterbacks are Joe Flacco, T.J. Yates, Mark Sanchez, and Tim Tebow or Carson Palmer or Jason Campbell. As soon as Pittsburgh or New England drop out, having Flacco behind center becomes an asset. And with the way New England is struggling on defense and the way Pittsburgh has struggled against Baltimore twice this season, there is no playoff matchup where the Ravens would not be favored, if they can just hold on to homefield advantage by winning out.
Whoever comes out of the NFC, we’re bound to have a storyline of a great offensive team going up against an elite defensive team. But what could slip by the public consciousness during super bowl week if the Ravens are a participant is how prepared for the spotlight Joe Flacco is after last year and even the first half of this season. The Ravens are running out of time to make a run with this group of veterans. But if the Ravens offense continues to look as dominant as it has the past three weeks or so, guys like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed are going to have just enough time to go down in history as World Champions.
And at that point, we’ll have to decide whether to put Ozzie Newsome into the hall of fame a second time, or just amend his qualifications from the first time.