The Baltimore Ravens have been in a gradual re-tooling process the last two seasons, since winning the Super Bowl in 2012 and then saying goodbye to franchise legends Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, along with other key contributors on defense. They missed the playoffs in 2013 and were in danger of doing so last year. But a strong finish and a good showing in the postseason have marked them, at least to me, as the team to beat for the AFC title in 2015.
I know we’re supposed to begin every conversation about football with the quarterback, but I’m still clinging to this notion that line play matters, and that’s where the conversation about the Ravens has to begin.
This offensive line is going to be the best in football. Marshal Yanda is one of the league’s top guards, and Kelechi Osemeli grades out very well by the film reviewers of ProFootbalFocus.com. Earl Monroe is solid at left tackle.
If we jump over to the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, we see a high-quality nose tackle in Brandon Williams, along with tackle Timmy Jernigan, both players who command a high degree of respect at PFF. The Ravens play a 3-4 scheme that doesn’t always allow its lineman to stand out, but these are the players who have to tie up blockers and free linebackers to make plays.
Now about those linebackers. This is another position group that is the best of its kind in the NFL. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil attack from the outside and combined for 29 sacks. Daryl Smith and C.J. Moseley are tough on the inside. You aren’t going to run the ball on the Ravens and you aren’t going to get time to throw. And if you want to try and throw short passes the receivers are going to get crushed—strong safety Will Hill is another player that deserves mention here.
Thus, we come around to the quarterback position. Joe Flacco had one of the great postseasons of all time during the 2012 run, and used his leverage to get a contract that would be more appropriate to someone with the stature of Brady, Manning or Rodgers. Flacco isn’t that and his inability to drag a rebuilding team to the playoffs in 2013 proved it. But if you have the right kind of supporting cast, the way the team did in his first NFL years from 2008-12 and has again now, he’s plenty good enough.
Flacco’s 62 percent completion rate tracks with the league norm, and his 27/12 TD-INT ratio is good enough. What really separates him is the ability to make plays down the field. Flacco generates 7.2 yards-per-attempt, compared to a league average of 6.4. That’s a huge difference over the course of a season.
Baltimore’s offensive line is going to ensure the team runs the football. Justin Forsett made the Pro Bowl last year and if he can’t replicate that performance, a team with this kind of line will find someone else who can. Flacco is going to get protection and he’s got the ferociously competitive Steve Smith as his top target. Smith’s fiery persona fits in well with the identity this franchise his cultivated, starting with Lewis.
The other AFC contenders have flaws I don’t like. New England has defensive personnel to replace. Indianapolis isn’t tough enough in the trenches and Andrew Luck needs to cut back on the turnovers. I’m much higher on Denver than most people and am really looking forward to the Ravens-Broncos game on Sunday, the first late Sunday afternoon national TV battle of the year. But the ability of Baltimore up front gives them the edge, at least over the long haul.
I don’t necessarily pick the Ravens to win the Super Bowl—I think Green Bay is going to win it all and I’ve got Seattle as the second-best team. And it’s quite possible Baltimore doesn’t get the #1 seed—I suspect New England, in an overrated AFC East, can again churn that out. But we’ve seen that the Ravens don’t fear going to Foxboro in January, or anywhere else for that matter.
Under the leadership of head coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore has won road playoff games in New England (twice), Denver and Pittsburgh, in addition to Kansas City and Miami. That inspires a high degree of confidence the Ravens can make it through the AFC from any spot on the bracket. I think they’ll be in Santa Clara on February 7.