Two weekends from now, when they commence what they hope will be the Super Bowl run that has eluded them during John Harbaugh's otherwise successful four-year tenure as coach, the Ravens will not have to worry about one of the two central factors that have contributed to each of their four losses this season. All four came on the road. Baltimore was 8--0 at home, and as the AFC North champion and No. 2 seed it will finally host a postseason game after playing seven straight as visitors over the past three seasons.
Even within the confines of M&T Bank Stadium, however, the second factor behind each of their regular-season defeats remains a concern. In those losses—only one of which, it must be noted, was to a team that finished better than .500—the Ravens were unwilling, or unable, to regularly hand the ball off to Ray Rice, the 5' 8" dynamo who ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,364) and first in total yards (2,068). In Baltimore's losses Rice had an average of 9.0 carries for 38.8 yards. In its wins he averaged 21.3 carries for 100.8 yards. "I am never going to be the guy [who] talks about touches, but obviously we know going into a game that five carries is not going to cut it," Rice said after he received that many in the loss at Seattle on Nov. 13. "At the same time, we found ourselves so deep in the situation that we had to climb our way out."
"The situation" Rice was referring to is the large deficits—nine points or more—in which the Ravens found themselves in each of their losses. The deficits took the ball out of Rice's hands and put it into those of quarterback Joe Flacco, a shift that only seemed to compound their troubles. Though he has led them to the playoffs every year he's been in the league and beat Pittsburgh twice in 2011, Flacco regressed somewhat in his fourth season as Baltimore's starter, with career lows in completion percentage (57.6) and yards per attempt (6.66), and at times seemed to lose the pocket presence that he had shown even as a rookie, when he led the franchise to the AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens' postseason game plan should be clear: hope that their aging-yet-still-elite defense (it ranked third overall) can avoid yielding early leads, and then get the ball to Rice. If they don't, they will have to rely on the inconsistent Flacco more than is good for them.
Joe Flacco's passer rating in 2011, second-lowest of his career and fourth-worst among the 12 starting QBs in this year's playoffs; only rookies Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates and second-year Bronco Tim Tebow have lower ratings.
Opponents' third-down conversion rate against the Ravens' defense, second-lowest in the league. Overall the Ravens ranked third in total defense, the ninth straight year they've been in the top 10.
ON THE SPOT
The fifth wideout selected in last April's draft, Torrey Smith trailed only the Bengals' A.J. Green and the Falcons' Julio Jones among rookies in receiving yards (841), but he was inconsistent. For every outing like that of Week 11 against the Bengals, in which he had six catches for 165 yards, there was one like the following week's versus the 49ers, in which he had two for 23. With the Ravens' playoff opponents dialing in on Ray Rice, and with Anquan Boldin still recovering from knee surgery, it will be incumbent on Smith to play beyond his years and become the reliable target that Joe Flacco desperately needs.
LARRY FRENCH/GETTY IMAGES (RICE)
CHURN, BABY, CHURN Rice averaged more than 20 carries and 100 yards in the Ravens' wins but fewer than 10 and 40 in their losses.
TOM DIPACE (SMITH)