Two of the three teams the Vikings were needing to help them out Saturday failed to oblige, as only the Falcons slipped behind the Vikings in the chase for the playoffs. It makes Sunday night's game with the Ravens even more critical for Minnesota, because a loss will now eliminate them from playoff contention.
The Ravens aren't the pushover that their 5-9 record would tend to indicate, but they are a team that has been one-dimensional – the defense can dominate games, but the offense (with the exception of Monday's mugging of the Packers has been inept almost the entire season. The Ravens played the Steelers for all they could handle twice this year – losing 20-19 at Pittsburgh and beating them 16-13 in Baltimore. The defense will keep them in games, but the offense has been little help.
Topping the list of headaches – as it always seems to be – is quarterback Kyle Boller. Vikings fans recall Boller from his inadvertent part in a Vikings embarrassment for Mike Tice. The Ravens and Vikings had a trade worked out for Baltimore to move up to the No. 7 spot to take Byron Leftwich and the Vikings would drop three spots and take Kevin Williams. Instead, the Ravens didn't get their portion of the trade to the table in time and the picks became a land grab. The Jaguars took Leftwich and, left scrambling, the Ravens made a trade later in the first round and took Boller. Injuries have cut his season down – the offense actually being more efficient under backup Anthony Wright. But combined they have a passer rating of 71.8 – Boller is 71.9 and Wright is 71.7. Even the Ravens defense doesn't allow a passer that low – it's at 75.5. If pressured, Boller will throw stupid passes and the Vikings' Travis Taylor could give the defensive coaches an insight into Boller's specific weaknesses.
The way to make Boller create turnovers is to stop the running game – which hasn't been too difficult to do this season. Two years ago, Jamal Lewis was hailed as a 2,000-yard rusher. As a team, the Ravens have rushed for 1,388 yards and only a little more than half of those (743) belong to Lewis. As a potential unrestricted free agent, Lewis hasn't run with any authority or seemingly with passion for the game all season. He is spelled by Chester Taylor, who is an outside runner and pass receiver that complement's Lewis' between-the-tackles presence. The onus of stopping Lewis and altering the game plan will fall squarely on Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. If they can take Lewis away from the offense – which several opponents have done – they can make the Ravens pass.
When Boller does throw, he has some dangerous options at his disposal – which makes his constant struggle more frustrating for Ravens fans. Derrick Mason is one of the game's top possession receivers who can beat man coverage for long plays. He leads the team with 74 receptions for 897 yards, but has just two touchdowns and his longest play of the season has been just 35 yards. The other viable option – especially in the red zone – is tight end Todd Heap. While he doesn't get the press of TEs like Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey or Tony Gonzalez, his numbers are comparable (69 catches for 803 yards and six TDs) and the other three have a knockout running game to keep defenses honest. Everyone in the stadium knows Heap is a primary option on most pass plays, yet he continues to catch five or six passes every game. Rookie Mark Clayton has made a splash in recent weeks – passing the Vikings' Troy Williamson in receptions (36) and yards (370). He's also been used in the running game – he's carried the ball seven times and scored a touchdown – so he'll need to be accounted for and lane assignments must be maintained. When the Vikings took Williamson with the seventh pick, there was a school of thought that said take a defensive player at No. 7 and Clayton and No. 20. When you see him Sunday, you'll understand why he had some fans on draft day. The Ravens still use Randy Hynes, but he has just 11 receptions this year and has been lost in the shadow of Mason and Clayton.
Up front, the Ravens have been beaten down on the right side of the line. On the left side, they're as a solid as anyone with tackle Jonathan Ogden, guard Edwin Mulitalo and center Mike Flynn. Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, the right side of the line consists of Tony Pashos – a fifth-round pick in 2003 – at tackle and Brian Rimpf – a seventh-round pick in 2004 – at guard. This unit can be overwhelmed by the Vikings defensive front and Darrion Scott could have his way with Pashos and force the big play Boller seems to make when hit.
While the offense is one of the worst in the league, the Ravens beleaguered defense has stood up to most challenges. They've allowed 30 or more points three times and got whipped up by the Lions – no small feat in the era of the Millen Man March – but the Ravens have held four of their last five opponents to 15 points or less – including the likely playoff-bound Broncos and Steelers. They can be dominant and, even without Ray Lewis, can make life miserable for a quarterback. Few teams can bring as many heavy hitters as the Ravens. Up front, the Ravens are led by Terrell Suggs and Anthony Weaver, a pair of relentless pass rushers who have combined for eight sacks and two interceptions. In the middle, tackles Kelly Gragg and Maake Kemoeatu aren't the flashiest players in the league, but they're responsible for clogging the inside running lanes and force runners out to the athletic defensive ends. If the Vikings have problems in the middle, Brad Johnson will find himself running out of the pocket and into trouble.
Even without Ray Lewis, the Ravens linebackers are still special and the key to their defensive success. The Ravens run a 4-3 base, but often revert into a 3-4 with Suggs or an additional linebacker in as the stand-up pass rusher. Former Ram Tommy Polley has replaced Lewis on the inside and strongside linebacker Adalius Thomas leads the team with seven sacks. He's a fierce blitzer who can come at any time on a pass rush. On the outside, fourth-year man Bart Scott is the weak link of the group and may be targeted with passes to Jermaine Wiggins or crossing routes by Nate Burleson or former Raven Travis Taylor.
The secondary of the Ravens remains its crown jewel. They could have three or four Hall of Famers in this group. Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle are two of the top cover corners in the league and safety Ed Reed a legitimate MVP candidate on the defensive side of the ball. Former Viking Dale Carter has settled in at strong safety and, on passing down, ageless wonder Deion Sanders comes in as a nickel back. While the depth doesn't go much beyond them, this could be the greatest collection of secondary players in the history of the game – even with Sanders and Carter a few years past their prime.
The Ravens are going to bring an array of challenges to the Vikings. Unlike the Rams and Browns, teams with similar records and similar struggles, the Ravens are a team that won't go away quietly and, with nothing to lose, may throw out the deep plays from the kitchen sink as Mike Tice and good friend Brian Billick hook up for the second time in their coaching careers. This is a game the Vikings need to win and, with what's at stake, the Vikings might not leave much on the field either.
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