Grit, luck and karma. These are the concepts that propelled the Ravens to victory against the Steelers on Turkey Day 2013. While the defending champions looked in control heading into the locker room at halftime, any but the most casual NFL fan knew this one would come down to the wire. The Ravens demonstrated their grit by playing a full 60 minutes of football against an underrated division rival from Pittsburgh. As always there was a certain amount of luck involved, and what cannot be chalked up to grit and luck must fall squarely in the karma column. Dutiful fans can’t help but ascribe Emanuel Sanders’ drop on the potential game-tying 2-point conversion as anything but spiritual retribution for desecrating Ray Lewis’ squirrel dance after his 3nd quarter touchdown. And if that didn’t do it, then Mike Tomlin’s not very well disguised attempt to impede Jacoby Jones’ kickoff return tipped the karma scale to Baltimore’s favor. As it turns out, this move tipped Lady Justice’s scale as well – to the tune of a $100,000 lightening of Tomlin’s wallet. It may also cost the Steelers a draft pick.
After redeeming themselves against the Steelers, the Ravens find themselves at 6-6, in sole possession of the 2nd AFC wildcard spot, and in control of their post-season destiny. At the top level the prescription is simple – keep winning and go to the playoffs, lose two – or maybe even one – and watch them from home.
The next set of challengers to the Ravens’ dreams of a Super Bowl repeat are the Minnesota Vikings and the NFL’s leading rusher, Adrian Peterson. The Vikings are 3-8-1 on the year, but this contest will be anything but easy for the Ravens for multiple reasons. The first, of course, is the beast known around the NFL as “AP”. Peterson has already logged over 1200 rushing yards this year, and chalked up over 350 in the last two weeks against the Packers and the Bears. At 6th in the NFL, the Ravens’ run defense has improved significantly since last year, but they have yet to face a back like AP. If the Ravens want any chance of winning they will have to limit Peterson’s production which likely means keeping him off the field by winning the time of possession battle (more on that later). The next challenge for the Ravens will be containing the rookie kick return phenom, Cordarrelle Patterson. In addition to averaging over 30 yards per return with two touchdowns, the Vikings have started to use the speedster on offense. The final challenge will be Matt Cassel. Sure, he’s not considered an elite quarterback around the league, but he has been able to string together the right drives at the right times to keep the Vikings at or above the waterline in several games this year.
Not all is doom and gloom for the Ravens however. Despite a setback against the Steelers, the Ravens running game is starting to show signs of life. Match this against the Vikings’ 23rd ranked rushing defense and there is hope that either Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce can break out. Additionally, Flacco continues to gain confidence in his receiving corps – especially on the deep ball with Jones and Smith. The more this continues, the more the running game should open up. Let’s not forget that TE Dennis Pitta may make his return to the field. If true, this promises to open up a desperately needed short passing game (against the NFL’s 30th ranked passing defense) for the Ravens which should aid their ability to manage the clock and keep AP off the field. And, finally, the Ravens will have the assistance of the 12th man since this game will be played at M&T Bank Stadium. if you’re looking to go to the game, Ravens tickets remain available in both the lower and upper level.
The final variable will be the weather. If the forecasts for a “wintry mix” pan out, this game will turn into a battle between AP and Rice/Pierce. If that is the case, it may very well be decided by special teams. If the weather beats the forecast, then everything favors the Ravens. If not… I’d still put my money on Justin Tucker.