The Miami Dolphins' comeback victory over the New York Jets on Monday night confirms that if the Ravens are going to make the postseason, it is essential that they go on the road and beat the Dolphins on Sunday. Otherwise, a loss would drop the Ravens a full game behind Miami and leave them on the wrong end of potential head-to-head tie breaks with both the San Diego Chargers and the Dolphins, the two teams that currently lead the AFC wild-card standings. The Dolphins also would have a clear path to 10 wins with home games against the Minnesota Vikings and the Jets on their schedule over the final two weeks.
As for the AFC's other five 7-5 teams, the Ravens hold the clear schedule advantage. The Kansas City Chiefs still have to play on the road against the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers and at home against the Chargers. The Buffalo Bills' schedule is brutal with road games against the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots and a home matchup with the Green Bay Packers remaining. The Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals twice and the Chiefs once, while the Cleveland Browns still need to face the Indianapolis Colts, the Bengals and the Ravens. And I wouldn't discount the 8-4 Chargers falling back to the pack either. Their four remaining games are against the Patriots, the Broncos, the San Francisco 49ers and the Chiefs. They'll probably need to split those four to assure themselves of a playoff spot. The 6-6 Houston Texans aren't out of the race by any means as they face the 2-10 Jacksonville Jaguars twice over the final four weeks. As for the Ravens, winning out will certainly get them in. But there are no guarantees that winning three of their final four games and finishing 10-6 will be good enough, especially if that one loss is to Miami.
In four games since cornerback Jimmy Smith went down with what turned out to be a season-ending foot injury, the Ravens have allowed 13 touchdown passes and 1,239 passing yards. It validates the prevailing belief when he was injured that other than quarterback Joe Flacco, Smith was the player who the Ravens could least afford to lose.
Not only did Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers completely shut down Steve Smith on Sunday, he also provided a glimpse to Ravens officials of what could have been. The Ravens kicked the tires on signing Flowers in June after his release by the Chiefs. However, Flowers wound up going to the Chargers on a one-year, $3 million deal. He has been one of the league's best cornerbacks and one of the top offseason bargains. Obviously, in hindsight, the Ravens' decision-makers probably wish that they made a more aggressive play for Flowers. Of course, they didn't expect significant injuries to Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, Asa Jackson and Aaron Ross, but general manager Ozzie Newsome says every offseason that you can never have enough quality cornerbacks. And it was pretty clearly early in training camp that the Ravens didn't.
Speaking of Steve Smith, I understand that it's easier said than done, but the Ravens have to try and get him involved early. In games in which Smith makes a couple catches on either the first or second drive, he usually winds up having big days and being engaged throughout. In games that he does nothing early, he has mostly struggled throughout. Give credit to Smith for taking accountability after Sunday's game and acknowledging that he played terrible. He dropped two balls, including a potential touchdown, and Flacco missed him on a couple occasions when Smith was open. The Ravens just can't afford for him to have any more games where Smith is a nonfactor.
Jeromy Miles became the latest Ravens safety to get an extended look as he played more than 70 snaps against the Chargers. Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave Miles' play positive reviews. On the other end of the spectrum was rookie third-round pick Terrence Brooks, who didn't play a single defensive snap after his misplay late in the second quarter of the previous game resulted in a touchdown for the New Orleans Saints. It obviously has been a difficult transition from college to the NFL for Brooks, who has looked confused and overwhelmed at times on defense. But who hasn't on the Ravens' back end? Former first-round pick Matt Elam has been one of the biggest offenders, and he played pretty much every defensive snap against the Chargers. Brooks is probably the fastest and most athletic safety on the Ravens, so I'm not sure what they have to lose by playing him more, even if it's at the nickel cornerback spot.
The Ravens aren't consumed by such matters, but a couple players have put themselves in pretty good position to win some individual hardware at year's end. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is top-10 in the NFL in tackles, and he is one of the front-runners for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Running back Justin Forsett has to be considered one of the favorites for the Comeback Player of the Year award as well.