As long as they take care of business Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens are in an ideal position. They have an opportunity to post a win in the first game of Week 16 and then put pressure on the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, who will then need to win the following day to keep pace in the AFC wild-card picture.
By now, you surely know that the Ravens can’t clinch a playoff berth this weekend. Even if they beat the Colts Saturday, they’ll kick off the following Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals knowing that the only way to guarantee a playoff berth will be to beat the Bengals. Other scenarios could play out simultaneously Dec. 31 to get the Ravens in even if they drop one of their final two regular-season games and finish 9-7.
The Titans could lose their final two games against the first-place Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bills could lose out, falling to both the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. The Bills could upset the Patriots and then lose to the Dolphins the final week, and the Ravens would still maintain the common-opponent tiebreaker advantage even if both teams finish 9-7.
But the Ravens seem to understand that it needn’t get to all that. For several years, the Ravens have mostly done it the hard way. This year, everything has fallen into place. They finish the season with two games at home against battered and beaten opponents while other teams in the hunt play stiff competition.
The Ravens have talked from the very first day the team got together over the summer about finishing. The stage is set for them to do just that.
Pro Bowl snubs?
Count me among those who felt that Ravens kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch are Pro Bowl-worthy, but it isn’t an egregious snub that they are not going.
If I were a general manager, there isn’t an NFL kicker I’d take over Tucker, but the Pro Bowl has never really been a referendum on who the best players are at certain positions. So much else goes into it, from the popularity of the player and the team he plays for, to the number of opportunities said player has, to the success of the player’s team.
Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Chris Boswell, who made it over Tucker, is a worthy selection. He has hit 29 of 32 field-goal attempts, including all four tries from 50 yards or more. At Heinz Field, which is considered the hardest place to kick in the NFL, he’s 16 of 17 this season. And above all, he has kicked four game-winning field goals this year and three of them were in prime time for a team that is 11-3. To no fault of Tucker, Boswell has just had more opportunities with the game on the line, and those kicks are always going to stand out more to those selecting the Pro Bowl teams.
As for Tennessee’s Brett Kern making it over Koch, Kern is on pace to set an NFL record for top gross punting average in a single season, so you can see why he’s Pro Bowl-bound despite the fact that no punter has been even close to Koch when it comes to pinning teams inside the 20.
2018 opponents almost set
It seems foolish to talk about 2018 when the Ravens are still in the playoff hunt, but it’s never too early to look at next year’s schedule. All but two of the Ravens’ 16 matchups are set, and the two that aren’t are pretty close to locks.
The Ravens’ eight home games will be against the Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Steelers, Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and this year’s second-place finisher in the AFC East, which looks at this point to be the Bills.
Their eight road games are against the Bengals, Browns, Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers and the second-place finisher in the AFC South, which will most likely be the Titans. That road schedule will be rather difficult.
I thought wide receiver Kamar Aiken got a raw deal with the Ravens last year. After nearly having a 1,000-yard season in 2015, he was often the fourth wide receiver option last year behind Steve Smith Sr., Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman. He finished with 29 catches for 328 yards and one touchdown.
Aiken signed a one-year deal with the Colts in March, hoping to rehabilitate his value before taking another foray into free agency. It hasn’t gone as planned. In 13 games with Indianapolis, including seven starts, Aiken has 14 catches on 41 targets for 131 yards and no touchdowns. I’d imagine he’ll be quite motivated Saturday.
Ten quick thoughts
1) Ravens coach John Harbaugh nodded Monday when asked whether running back Alex Collins got through Sunday’s win against the Browns healthy. I wouldn’t expect Harbaugh to reveal injury information at this time of year; however, it was obvious Sunday that the running back is banged up. He jogged slowly off the field on about four occasions against Cleveland. Collins is just 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, and he absorbs a lot of contact. That’s why many within the organization believe that holding him 15 to 18 touches a game is ideal.
2) As an aside on Collins, Saturday would be a good time to get running back Terrance West, who has been inactive for nine straight weeks, back into the game plan. The Colts are hurting on defense and vulnerable against the run. West is fresh and motivated.
3) It happened at least once if not a few more times against the Browns, but the Ravens really should consider getting running backs Buck Allen and Danny Woodhead onto the field more at the same time. The offense gets a little predictable when Woodhead is in the game.
4) The Ravens have to be thrilled with how first-round pick Marlon Humphrey has acclimated himself as the starting cornerback with Jimmy Smith out for the season. Playing with physicality, speed and confidence, Humphrey doesn’t carry himself like a rookie at all.
5) Koch ranks seventh among NFL punters in terms of average salary per year. I’d say the Ravens are getting their money’s worth.
6) Anthony Levine Sr. is another Raven who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his contributions on special teams and defense. He leads the team in special teams tackles and captains that unit. He also has three sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery, and he’s affecting games more and more as a hybrid inside linebacker/safety.
7) Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett, the top overall pick this year, is a stud, but there were times Sunday when I didn’t notice he was on the field. That’s largely a credit to left tackle Ronnie Stanley.
8) One of the most surprising Ravens statistics this year is quarterback Joe Flacco getting sacked just 25 times. Fifteen quarterbacks have been sacked more. A makeshift offensive line has done about as well as you can expect protecting Flacco.
9) Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin has taken a lot of outside criticism for both his body language and his weekly injury struggles. I don’t get into all of the finger pointing when we truly don’t know what he’s going through physically, but let’s not act as if he hasn’t absorbed some huge hits this year in the middle of the field. The one Sunday by Jabrill Peppers was the latest.
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10) Assuming Maclin will miss some time, it makes sense to promote Quincy Adeboyejo from the practice squad before Saturday’s game. It would be tough to bring in a receiver off the street and get him quickly acclimated to the offense, but Adeboyejo and fellow practice squad wideout Kenny Bell have been around for long enough.