The 4-5 Baltimore Ravens kept themselves in the AFC playoff picture last week by knocking off the Bengals in Baltimore, in an overtime game that they seemingly had in control throughout, before letting up a last second hail mary at the end of regulation to knot up the score at 17.
They were finally able to break free from the slow offensive starts which have plagued them all season, but then in the absence of a running game, were not able to effectively possess the ball, wind down the clock, and add needed, game-sealing points in the second half.
Not being able to finish games when leading is typically not a Baltimore problem, but neither is being below .500 in the second half of the regular season… and here we are.
This week the Ravens travel to unfamiliar Soldier Field to face the 5-4 Chicago Bears, who are coming off a two-point loss to division rival Detroit, Sunday at 1 p.m.
Here are some keys to the game:
The Bears will be without strong-armed starter Jay Cutler this week due to injury, and will rely on 11-year veteran Josh McCown, who was plucked from the high school coaching ranks a few years back after being completely out of the NFL.
McCown has played well this season in previous spells for Cutler, and with his big arm and serviceable athleticism, he doesn’t submit much of a drop-off from the starter when asked to fill in.
He’s also aided by big, strong-handed wide-outs -- Brandon Marshall, one of the league’s most electrifying and consistent producers of the last eight seasons, and second-year man Alshon Jeffery, who appears to be starting to come into his own after a highlight-heavy career at South Carolina.
The Ravens will also have to account for lightning, do-it-all running back Matt Forte, a major receiving threat out of the backfield with superb field vision, and the seam routes from 6’6’’ tight end Martellus Bennett.
Baltimore put in a strong defensive effort last week against Cincinnati, which included moving Lardarius Webb to nickel in three-cornerback sets, a great coaching move that capitalizes on Webb’s aggressive tackling, speed in surprise blitzing, and above average ball skills.
Elvis Dumervil is also coming off a big three sack performance last week, and Terrell Suggs, who normally operates in sack streaks, has had a quiet past two games, which could make him due for a big appearance in Chicago.
It’s all about getting to the quarterback because if McCown has time, he will find his weapons and move the Bears downfield.
Baby steps to the end zone
The Ravens' offense continues to struggle running the ball, and clearly will need to address the carry distribution moving forward, as well as the center position this offseason.
But as we learned in last year’s postseason, if Joe Flacco is provided with a well-formed pocket, he is able to make all of the downfield throws, and the receiving corps of Smith, Brown, Jones, and Thompson is talented enough to make big plays and score points.
We’re just still waiting to see it… and I think I just got a social security check in the mail.
The Bears are dealing with injuries on defense, most notably to top corner Charles Tillman, but still boast a strong front that includes NC’s finest Julius Peppers, who, if asked to run an inside rush stunt, will probably send Gino Gradkowski across Lakeshore Drive.
Is this the place?
The Ravens are 1-4 on the road this season, with their only win coming in Baltimore-friendly Miami against the Dolphins. In heading to out of conference heavyweight Chi-town where they only play once every eight years, they find themselves in serious unknown territory, which would seem to give heavy advantage to the Bears.
However, the Ravens are fighting for their postseason lives, with every game from here on out pretty much representing a playoff war.
And in at least winning last week and breaking a three game slide, no matter how ugly it was, it should have provided them with needed confidence that they are in fact capable of scoring more points than the opposition.
Adversity tests a team like nothing else can, as does a trip to the vibrant pulsing center of America’s heartland to face Daaa Bears. Let’s play some ball!