You can bet that if it’s the holiday season in the Charm City, then the Baltimore Ravens are playing smash mouth December football. NFL Football in December is a different beast than it is in September, October, and for most of November.
Thanksgiving is usually the cutoff when the contenders separate from the pretenders. Teams that succeed this time of the year in the NFL are teams that can run the football, play great defense by stopping the run, and excel against special teams.
The weather is a huge factor in why many successful teams change game plans and philosophies. In order to do so, they must also have the personnel. You can’t succeed in December and January without having top tier talent. Fortunately for the Baltimore Ravens, they have that talent on both sides of the ball. The coaching staff has finally begun to use it accordingly.
Like the previous three seasons, the Ravens have begun their march towards the NFL’s post- season. Their 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday was a workman like performance. In the heavy rainy and wind, the Ravens continued their dominance over the Browns to win their seventh straight game versus the Browns.The fifth straight in Cleveland.
Head Coach John Harbaugh, who seems to draw criticism during the early stages of each season, knows what it takes to win in December and January. He knows that you have to win your division games. He is now 15-7 against divisional foes since taking over for Brian Billick in 2008. You have to win on the road, which Harbaugh has also done. With Sunday's victory, he is now 16-14 (20-17 including playoffs) away from Baltimore during his tenure.
Sunday's win over the Browns was the Ravens sixth straight over a divisional foe. Their eighth divisional win in their last nine divisional games.
Much of the Ravens success as a franchise in December can be traced before the arrival of Harbaugh. Former Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick geared his whole season beginning with training camp to play in December and January. Billick kept his players fresh when he could. Often times drawing criticism for soft training camps, which the Ravens' media dubbed, "Camp Billick".
Whatever Billick did it worked. He rubbed off on players like future hall of famer's Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Both are often overheard preaching the importance of winning this time of year. The Ravens have been a franchise that thrives after Thanksgiving.
Since 1999, the Ravens' are 36-20 during the toughest time of the season. They were 26-16 under Billick. Harbaugh has continued where Billick left off, so to speak during the last six weeks of the season. He has guided the Ravens to an 11-4 mark under his leadership.
Like Billick, Harbaugh has relied on the Ravens rushing attack and great defense during this time of year. Not many teams heat up like the Ravens when December football is needed. The weather turns cold, and calls for the ground and pound game.
During the Harbaugh era and entering Sunday’s game, the Ravens have rushed for 152.6 yards per game in December and January. Good for the NFL’s third best average over that span.
On Sunday in Cleveland, running back Ray Rice rushed for a career high 204 yards, and scored one touchdown. Back-up Ricky Williams chipped in with 76 yards, and also added a touchdown. Only the New York Jets (153.3) and Carolina Panthers (171.5) averaged more rushing yards per game during the Harbaugh era.
After Sunday’s team total of 290 yards, the Ravens bumped up their average 161.8 YPG. They only trail the Panthers now. As I stated earlier, teams must also be able to stop the run and play great defense this time of year. No one has done both as well as the Ravens in recent years. Since the 2008 season, the Ravens have allowed just 83.2 rushing yards per game. The fewest in the NFL.
On Sunday, and once again without their leader in the middle Ray Lewis, the Ravens defense dominated another offense. They held this year’s jinxed Madden cover boy, Peyton Hillis, to just 45 yards. This after Hillis used the Ravens defense as part of his climb towards notoriety last season. He gained 144 yards on Ray Lewis and company during a week three loss in Baltimore.
Since Lewis has gone down with a turf toe injury, the Ravens have held Cedric Benson, Frank Gore, and Peyton Hillis to an average of just 41.6 yards per game.
Head coaches have their holdups that tend to frustrate fans at times during a season, or for an entire season. Brian Billick’s willingness to stick with the much maligned Kyle Boller at quarterback was ultimately his undoing in Baltimore.
John Harbaugh is no different. His failure to become more involved with the Ravens offensive game plan; which allowed Cam Cameron to rely on quarterback Joe Flacco, instead of running back Ray Rice. It frustrated the fans in Baltimore last season, and for most of this season.
Following those losses, defensive superstars Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis voiced their displeasure with Cameron's play calling. Rice wasn’t quite as patient waiting for his offensive coordinator and head coach to once again turn to him. Although not disrespectful, Rice voiced his displeasure with his lack of work during those losses
When Ray Rice has less than 14 rushes, as he did in losses to the Titans (13), Jaguars (5), and Seahawks (8), he has no touchdowns, and averages just 44.8 yards per game. The most important stat is, that the Ravens are 1-3 this season when that happens.
When Rice has 14 or more rushes, he has nine touchdowns, averages 93.4 yards per game, and the Ravens are 8-0. After attempting 52-passes just three weeks ago during a loss to the now 5-7 Seattle Seahawks, the third most in franchise history, the Ravens set a franchise record with 55 rushing attempts in Cleveland on Sunday.
Thankfully, the Ravens committed to Rice a bit sooner than last season. This began following the loss to the Seahawks, as opposed to mid-December. This season, the noticeable change in philosophy was seen on Thanksgiving night versus the San Francisco 49ers.
With 3:20 remaining in the game, and the Ravens holding on to a seven-point lead, they had third and five from the 49ers' 20-yard line. Now I don’t have to remind Ravens fans what Cameron, Flacco, and the Ravens offense did in almost an identical situation exactly one year ago versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. But, I will for the sake of my point.
With a little under three minutes remaining and on second and five, Flacco dropped back to throw and was sacked, as well as stripped of the ball by the Steelers Troy Polamalu.
The Steelers recovered, and eventually scored the touchdown that delivered the AFC North title, home field advantage, and another trip to the Super Bowl. Now call me foolish, but I believe all of that was possible because of that play.
Flash forward back to Thanksgiving night. Flacco takes the third down snap and hands off to Ray Rice, who was dropped for a one yard loss. It didn't matter because the Ravens maintained possession. Billy Cundiff drilled the 39-yard field goal extending the lead to 10 points. With the way the Ravens defense was playing, the game was all but over.
Sunday was the 10th time Cam Cameron was the offensive coordinator, that the Ravens have rushed for at least 190 yards or more. To no one’s surprise they are 9-0 when doing so. However, what makes this year’s struggles to commit to Rice hard to swallow is the fact that Baltimore is 25-2 when they rush for just 125 yards in a game. Including 5-0 last season, and now 3-0 this season.
Ray Rice is the key to the Ravens offense. He has been for the past two seasons. That’s not a knock on Joe Flacco or Anquan Boldin, but Rice has the numbers to support this claim. The fourth year back from Rutgers University has compiled 29 games with at least 100 total yards from scrimmage, 27 since becoming the Ravens full-time starter. That is the most in the NFL dating back to the 2009 season.
If a good defense can take Rice away from the Ravens offense, the Ravens may be in trouble. Yet, only the Ravens seem to be the ones taking Rice away. If Rice is stopped by a good defense in the playoffs, then you can only hope the Joe Flacco versus the Steelers shows up. Instead of the Joe Flacco versus the Titans.
When you consider all factors involved, the Ravens should be sitting at home waiting for their playoff opponent. Once the post-season begins this year with a first round bye. There is no reason they shouldn’t win out, especially when you consider their next three opponents. The Colts, Chargers, and Browns once again have a combined record of 9-27. The Ravens may even break the rushing attempt record they just set this past Sunday. None of the three teams rank higher than 26th against the run. The Colts and Browns are ranked 30th, and 31st respectively.
Yes, the Steelers have a soft schedule. They played a great December game themselves this past Sunday, when they blasted the Bengals 35-7 in Pittsburgh. Aside from the fact the Ravens are a better team this season, catching all of the breaks, the Black and Gold has to travel to San Francisco to play the 49ers. In case you forgot, there is also a Harbaugh on that sideline as well.
The Steelers may have the No.1 ranked defense in the league in terms of yards allowed, but the Ravens are playing the best overall defense. It’s not even close when you consider all of the stats. The Ravens defense is No.1 in the NFL with 41 sacks, and 16 forced fumbles. They are No. 2 with 10 recoveries, and No.3 in the NFL allowing 16 points per game.
The Ravens have 13 interceptions this season. Compared to the Steelers, that’s 14 more sacks, and 11 more turnovers. On top of the fact that the Ravens are 10 turnovers better in terms of plus/minus. The Steelers are a minus-6, while the Ravens are ninth in the NFL with a plus-4.
Being the No.1 overall defense doesn't matter anyway. The Ravens were the No. 2 ranked defense in 2000 behind the Tennessee Titans. You see which defense is still being talked about to this day.
The Ravens have some issues to iron out. They aren’t ready to bring the franchises second Lombardi trophy back to the big castle in Owings Mills just yet.
Ultimately, would it surprise anyone if the Ravens and Steelers met for a third time in one season? For the third time in the last four years? If things stay as they are, this one would be in Baltimore. That is the difference this season.
Baltimore is 6-2 in December at home under Harbaugh. However, those two December losses at home were to Pittsburgh. This seems different this season, and it appears to be the year of the Ravens. Besides, the Ravens have a better formula to beat teams like the Packers and Saints than any other team in the AFC, including the Steelers.
If Pittsburgh couldn’t beat the wild card Packers last year in the Super Bowl, then how would they handle, with practically the same personnel in Pittsburgh, an undefeated and even better Aaron Rodgers this year? The Ravens are better equipped to beat them and the Saints. If all of these teams make it that far.
Much like the Giants did to Tom Brady a few years back in the Super Bowl, the Ravens would rush Rodgers with pressure like he hasn’t seen this season. They say the best defense is not to play any at all. Both the Saints and Packers possess middle of the road run defenses. In which, Rice and the Ravens could very easily exploit.
This would keep Rodgers and Drew Brees on the sidelines. Unable to make the big plays, while they watched the Ravens control the clock, and ultimately, the game. If the Ravens make it to the big game and the 49ers are waiting for them, then they already have the formula for beating the NFL's best rushing defense. They have already done so on Thanksgiving.
Rushing for a respectable 92-yards, the Ravens stuck with Rice. They dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to tie a franchise record on defense with nine sacks. Now it is all much easier said than done; but of all the teams in the AFC, the Ravens stand the best chance to take down those teams.
They, meaning John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron, seem to get it now. As long as they stick with their main course of Rice left, Rice right, and Rice up the middle, the Ravens will finally host a playoff game for the first time since losing to the Colts in 2007. Maybe even two of them.
The Ravens are coming together on offense at just the right time. In other words, Baltimore is starting to climb to a peak that they could reach the first Sunday in February. Ricky Williams and Vonta Leach along with Ray Rice make up one of the best backfield's in the NFL.
For you Flacco fans, his big arm may be needed to win a big game before the season is over. He is starting to play real well. To get home field advantage is important, but has a bit more importance to the Ravens fourth-year signal caller. Flacco is a top tier NFL quarterback at M&T Bank Stadium during his career.
Joe Cool owns 25 career wins at home. The most among a NFL starting quarterback since 2008. Although he has struggled this season with a 55.3 completion percentage, Flacco has been solid in recent weeks when it counts. Prior to Sunday’s game in horrible conditions, Flacco posted back-to-back QB ratings over 100. In addition, he completed 64 percent of his passes.
Flacco was crisp and sharp in the wins over the 49ers and Bengals. Even in Cleveland, where drops by his receivers, and bad weather plagued his numbers. He seemed to be able to throw the ball through a bread box with precision. Flacco is a big reason why the Ravens have won three games in 14 days. Although, the No.1 reason is Rice and the defense.
If Cameron sticks with Rice as the Ravens' main course on offense, and you get the feeling he’s going to, then the Ravens will serve up the best of ironies to the great football fans of Baltimore—A Chance to win a Super Bowl in the house an Irsay built.