Did the Ravens’ back-to-back losses ruin their playoff chances?
A surprise 3-0 start by the Baltimore Ravens had fans believing that Joe Flacco, John Harbaugh and company had broken out of the slump that cost them a playoff trip in 2015. However, following back-to-back losses against the Oakland Raiders and Washington, those pie-in-the-sky visions have come crashing down to earth, leaving many to wonder what to make of the Ravens moving forward.
Though the margin of victory never extended beyond a single possession in any of the Ravens’ three wins, they displayed signs of considerable improvement over last season. The defense, which struggled a year ago between injuries and the departure of veteran defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, reestablished itself as one of the better units in the league. So far in 2016, Baltimore ranks No. 5 in overall defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Within that metric, the team performs well against the pass (12th) and absolutely demolishes the opposing running games (first). That defensive foundation can cover up numerous deficiencies across the roster and helped earn victories in the first three weeks.
At the same time, the Ravens have stumbled mightily on offense, which largely explains why they haven’t pulled away in any contest thus far this season. The unit as a whole ranks a paltry 27th in DVOA, with the passing game landing in the same place and the ground attack coming in at 20th. A myriad of factors have led to the offensive shortcomings, not least of which is the leaky offensive line. Without a consistent offense, Baltimore could find itself in even more one-possession affairs, and over a wide sample, teams tend to lose as many of those games as they win.
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The Ravens’ remaining schedule also does them few favors. After a two-week road trip to East Rutherford, N.J., they begin a November gauntlet that includes the first of two tilts with the high-flying Pittsburgh Steelers, an away game against the resurgent Dallas Cowboys, and another rough divisional matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. Even in a best-case scenario, Baltimore likely drops as many games as it wins, with the team potentially dropping every one.
All of which makes the Ravens’ recent back-to-back losses alarming. Even if the team doesn’t possess the substance of a typical 5-0 squad, banked wins cannot be taken away. Baltimore could have won as few as four of their subsequent contests in this situation and still realistically qualified for the playoffs. Now, with only three wins to their name, the Ravens have to find ways to secure six or more victories the rest of the season in order to earn a postseason berth, a herculean task considering their likely underdog status in every remaining game save for those against the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins. In effect, the losses to Oakland and Washington appear to have sunk their season.
If the Ravens have a silver bullet waiting in the chamber, it’s quarterback Joe Flacco. While Flacco looks to have returned physically from last year’s ACL tear, his play has yet to follow suit. He has thrown a greater percentage of his passes at or near the line of scrimmage than in past seasons, stymying offensive efficiency and reducing the number of big plays in the passing game. With fewer deep passes, opposing defenses have countered with more single-high-safety looks, negatively impacting Baltimore’s ground game.
However, as Flacco gains more confidence in his body and builds more chemistry with his mostly new supporting cast, the number of big plays could increase significantly. While the offense only has so much potential for improvement — the overall roster leaves much to be desired and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has already lost his job — just a minor step forward could result in some close losses becoming tight wins.
Whether that makes the difference between a Ravens playoff berth and another year without the postseason remains to be seen. The team’s buffer, already perilously thin, has completely vanished over the past two weeks. Now, Baltimore needs to make improvements on the margins and hope for some fortunate breaks.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.