How They Got Here:
The Ravens were in a win-and-in situation in Week 17 by virtue of their conference record and some head-to-head advantages over the other teams vying for a postseason spot. Baltimore took care of business against the Raiders after they found out that the Steelers and Texans both won earlier that day to finish at 9-7, just like the Ravens.
Although they finished only one game above .500, four of their losses were by three points or less and they finished with a very impressive point differential of plus-130 for the season. That point differential is third in the AFC and happens to be better than the plus-109 point differential for the 14-2 Colts.
Baltimore is not a pushover as a sixth seed by any means and could easily have finished with a much better record and as a much higher seed if the ball had bounced their way on a few occasions.
On the other side of the coin, they finished 1-6 against playoff teams — they defeated the Chargers, but lost to the Bengals twice, the Vikings, Packers, Patriots, and of course Indianapolis — and beat up on losing teams, beating up on Cleveland twice and crushing Detroit and Chicago. Looking at them one way, they don't have what it takes to advance. Looking at them another, they could very easily be the third or fourth seed and favored to go further in this bracket than a typical sixth seed.
It's also worth mentioning that both sixth seeds made it to the Conference Championship game last postseason and the Ravens were one of those sixth seeds. They defeated number one seed Tennessee in Nashville to advance to the Championship Game, so it would be very unwise to count them out based purely on how they enter the bracket.
Where They Rank:
Ninth in points scored per game (24.4), 13th in yards gained per game (351.2), 18th in passing yards per game 213.7, and fifth in rushing yards per game (137.5).
Third in points allowed per game (16.3), third in yards allowed per game (300.5), eighth in passing yards allowed per game (207.2), and fifth in yards rushing allowed per game (93.2).
How They Could Meet the Colts:
They need to beat the third-seeded Patriots on Sunday afternoon. That's it. They are the sixth-seeded team, so they would play the Colts no matter what happens in the Jets-Bengals game on Saturday.
It may seem like a stretch for second-year quarterback to beat New England on their home turf — where Tom Brady and company are undefeated at home so far this season and the Ravens are 3-5 on the road — but Baltimore took the Patriots down to the wire in Week 4 and that game was in Foxboro.
Their defense is an opportunistic unit and they have Pro Bowl players and former Defensive Players of the Year up and down that side of the ball. They can shut a team down, they can physically and mentally dominate their opponent's offense.
When their offense struggles, the defense — and the special teams unit in the return game — can also score. They are a dangerous team to face in a single elimination tournament because of their veteran defense, stellar special teams play as head coach John Harbaugh is a kicking game coach by trade, and strong running game.
If they are unable to take over the game, they can at least hang around and keep it close where one play can change everything in the fourth quarter. In previous seasons, they didn't have a player on offense that could make that game-changing play. Joe Flacco has not yet arrived as a clutch performer and star quarterback, but he is close.
The coaching staff insulated Flacco nearly to the point of suffocation in the playoffs last season, so it will be interesting to see how much they let him do this year.
If their defense struggles it is very difficult for them to come back and they may not have the playmakers on offense to keep pace with teams like the Colts, Patriots, and Chargers. Ray Rice has emerged as one of the game's most promising young tailbacks, but he is still inexperienced.
Flacco has not been given the reins in a high pressure situation like this in the past. Derrick Mason is the team's most accomplished and dangerous receiver and he's in his mid 30s.
If they can play their game and play to their strengths, they will be fine and they will be a very tough out, even for a team as talented as Indianapolis. But, if their defense — particularly their secondary, which has been injury plagued and somewhat suspect the past few weeks — lets them down and they fall behind, they will not be able to keep up with Peyton Manning and company. Or Tom Brady and company. Or Philip Rivers and company.
The Colts have the talent on offense to put up points on this defense and they have the talent on defense to contain Rice and Flacco, so they will be doing themselves a disservice if they allow Baltimore to hang around like they did in Week 11. If that happens, the Ravens may not oblige them by missing field goals in the second half or squandering opportunities in the red zone. The Ravens have to feel that they should have won that game in November and, if they manage to punch their ticket to Indianapolis, they most certainly will not go quietly.
So, it will be up to the Colts to play their game and force the Ravens to play to their weaknesses and not their strengths.
Editor's Note: We asked Aaron Wilson of Ravens Insider to provide us with some thoughts on the Ravens postseason hopes. Wilson went above and beyond, providing us with an entire story. That story runs in its entirety below. Aaron Wilson is the publisher of Ravens Insider. He covers the Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
STRENGTHS: The Baltimore Ravens are spearheaded by an extremely strong running game headlined by the shifty moves of Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, who finished second behind Chris Johnson in yards from scrimmage this season. Rice is a diminutive, stocky runner with surprising power. He's capable of running between the tackles and relishes contact with bigger linebackers. He's also an adept receiver who eludes defenders in the open field with a combination of stutter-steps, spin moves and head fakes.
The Ravens have the luxury of former Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee working in behind Rice. McGahee rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns during the Ravens' 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders while Rice gained 70 yards on the ground.
Named to the Pro Bowl last season when he led the Ravens with 902 rushing yards and 10 touchdown runs, fullback Le'Ron McClain remains a bruising presence as a traditional lead blocker this season.
McGahee hasn't complained about his reduced workload this season, accepting his role as Rice's primary backup.
"It means a lot, but I thought my season went pretty well," McGahee said. "I have 14 touchdowns, so I can't complain. I might not have all the yards, but I had a lot of touchdowns. It was basically having fun watching Ray run and earning his first Pro Bowl. The ability this offense has, there's a lot of power behind it."
McGahee's strong performance was a testament to his unselfish approach.
"Willis took over the game with the way he ran," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "And I think our offensive line deserves a lot of credit. Obviously, there were holes, but this guy was running north and south.
"He was powerful. He was explosive. And I think he's worked really hard all season to have this kind of game. His attitude, his work ethic has been off the charts. Willis McGahee is a leader on this football team, and it was so good to see him step up the way he did."
The old-school formula of a punishing rushing attack and a stout defense defines the Ravens. They aren't a flashy football team, but they do have some solid building blocks that usually translate into success in the postseason.
Defensively, tackle Haloti Ngata is a force inside and was named to his first Pro Bowl. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis remains a dynamic, energized tackler with range even though he's lost a step or two in pass coverage. When he's healthy, free safety Ed Reed is one of the most impactful, unpredictable defensive players in the game.
The Ravens rushed for 240 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries for their second-highest total of the season behind their 308-yard output in a 48-3 win over the Detroit Lions last month.
Defensively, they stonewalled the Raiders. Oakland was limited to 51 rushing yards, an average of 2.6 yards per carry. "With that type of formula, that's how you win playoff games: with defense and an aggressive running game," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You win a lot of games in the playoffs like that. We knew we had to win by any means necessary to give ourselves a shot at redemption. Now we're in the playoffs and anything can happen."
WEAKNESSES: The Ravens are thin at cornerback in the wake of season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries suffered by starters Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington. Although Domonique Foxworth has improved markedly over the past six games, the Ravens have been picked on this season by elite quarterbacks. Chris Carr is a solid starter, but is undersized and can be picked on by larger receivers like Randy Moss.
Nickelback Frank Walker is feisty and tough, but too much for his own good. He has become a penalty machine with a well-earned reputation for grabbing receivers downfield to collect illegal-contact flags.
The Ravens' breakdowns earlier this season includes struggles against Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer and Brett Favre. The Ravens had trouble containing journeyman Charlie Frye on Sunday and were fortunate that he left the game with a back injury as they sealed the game with an interception and a forced fumble against colossal Raiders bust JaMarcus Russell.
New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Rex Ryan's replacement, is growing into the job and has improved all season long. He's not nearly as aggressive and innovative as Ryan, who specialized in overload blitz packages that intimidated quarterbacks.
The Ravens don't get much of a consistent pass rush despite the presence of Terrell Suggs, Trevor Pryce and Jarret Johnson. Antwan Barnes is developing into a nice complementary pass rusher, but there is no dominant presence upfront aside from Haloti Ngata against the run. Inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe have had issues in pass coverage, but are stingy against the run. Kicker Billy Cundiff is a decent pickup after Steve Hauschka flopped and had to be cut earlier this season after failing as Matt Stover's replacement.
Dealing with tendinitis in his snapping elbow, long snapper Matt Katula could be on the verge of needing to be replaced by practice squad rookie snapper Nick Sundberg. Katula's bad snap led to Cundiff missing a 37-yarder as time expired in the first half against Oakland. The Ravens can't afford that kind of issue against the New England Patriots in the wild-card round.
Also, quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off a season-worst 102 passing yards.
His longest completion was 23 yards. He completed just four passes to his wide receivers for a total of 37 yards.
He looked out of sync and uncomfortable in the pocket all game.
"These guys are a big, tough, physical defense," said Flacco, who had a 72.7 passer rating. "They played tough, and you have to be impressed with their performance."
Meanwhile, the Ravens are crossing their fingers that free safety Ed Reed can get back to 100 percent for the playoffs.
During the Ravens' win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders, Reed returned after being out for a month with a slight groin tear.
Reed registered five tackles. Most importantly, he didn't aggravate his injury.
"I felt rusty," he said. "All I did is knock off the rust. It felt all right. I've still got pain in it.
"Coming into this game, we knew this was a playoff game. I had to go."
Reed moved around well, but the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year understandably didn't seem as instinctive as usual. For the most part, Reed displayed good range and reactions. The six-time Pro Bowl selection estimated his health and capabilities at roughly 85 percent. During his absence, Reed missed the camaraderie with his teammates.
"It felt real good when I got to practice, just being around those guys," Reed said. "They push you. Being around them, it honestly helps you to get through whatever you're going through. Pain and injuries or whatever. So, they helped me more than anything."
The Ravens will need a healthy Reed Sunday against the Patriots.
"Glad to win, man," he said. "That was No. 1, getting to the playoffs and trying your best to stay healthy and not really worrying about it."
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