Ravens are red hot and getting healthy at the right time
There are several indicators for postseason success in the NFL and chief among them are talent, health, coaching, and preparation, but there are two types of teams that typically make the deepest runs come January every year.
The first type is the team that heated up down the final stretch of the regular season and are heading into the playoffs red hot and are looking and playing like the best version of themselves.
The second type is the team that miraculously managed to keep the vast majority of their players healthy throughout the year or are recovering from the injury bug just in the nick of time for the playoffs.
Last season the Baltimore Ravens were the NFL’s hottest team for three-quarters of the regular season and were lucky enough to not get seriously stricken with the injury bug as ferociously as they have had in years past.
The 2020 regular season officially wrapped up this past Sunday and the Ravens punched their ticket to the dance for the third year in a row with a 38-3 throttling of the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17.
It marked their fifth straight win to close out the year and during that five-game winning streak, they averaged 36.8 points per game on offense and allowed an average of just 17.8 points per game defensively which would drop to 11.75 points per game if you exclude the Monday Night shootout with the Cleveland Browns in Week 14.
While the team wasn’t as fortunate in avoiding major injuries this year as they were in 2019, they have been able to overcome season-ending injuries to elite starters and key role players such as All-Pro left tackle, Ronnie Stanley, blocking tight end Nick Boyle, and nickel cornerback Tavon Young by making schematic adjustments and getting great play from their replacements.
In addition to having a handful of key veteran starters and role players miss time for injuries, the Ravens almost had their 2020 campaign derailed by an outbreak of COVID-19 within the organization that saw 23 players get placed on the reserve list and several coaches test positive as well.
Heading into their highly anticipated rematch with the Tennessee Titans on the second day of Super Wildcard Weekend, the Ravens are red hot, hungry, and as healthy as they have been since the season opener when they began and finished a game intact.
Pro Bowl interior defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell missed the Week 11 matchup with Tennessee that the Ravens lost in overtime but will be back in the starting lineup this time around after recovering from their respective injuries.
Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith is slated to make his return to the lineup this week after missing the last three games of the regular season with shoulder and rib injuries.
Wide receiver Willie Snead, starting center Patrick Mekari and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue all missed the regular-season finale as well but according to Harbaugh, they all have a chance to return to action for the Ravens’ first playoff game as well.
“I do think there’s a good chance we get both of those guys back,” Harbaugh said Monday of Smith and Ngakoue. “I can’t say for certain, but I think there’s a good chance for those guys to play.”
Mekari and Ngakoue returned to the first practice of the week on Wednesday as limited participants but Snead was held out.
“Willie’s a good option (to play),” Harbaugh said. “It’s not a given. I got the report today. I’m really hopeful for Willie to be back.”
Baltimore was also without veteran punter against the Bengals and he is still on the Reserve/COVID-19 List but Harbaugh has faith in reserve specialist Johnny Townsend who was signed off the Chiefs practice squad last week and performed punting and holding duties well in Week 17.
“He (Koch) may not practice for a few days this week but he’s really not going to need to be at practice to punt in the game,” Harbaugh said. “If things go according to plan, I expect him to be out there punting. If not, we’ve got Johnny, and Johnny did a really good job. He did a really good job holding, he did a nice job punting.”
The Ravens could also be close to getting reinforcements back at the quarterback position behind reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. Veteran signal-caller Robert Griffin III has a chance to return to practice for the first time since being placed on injured reserve on Dec.2 after suffering a hamstring injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 12.
“He’s done a good job of the rehab, he’s in a good place,” Harbaugh said of Griffin. “Talked to him once or twice a week as he rehabs. He’s doing well. We’ll see how it goes. A lot of that stuff is roster decisions, too. That will be up to (General Manager) Eric (DeCosta) and the front office. We’ll try to make the best decision for our roster going forward and we’ll see how it plays out.”
Third-string quarterback Trace McSorley (knee) is also on IR which left undrafted rookie Tyler Huntley to serve as Jackson’s back up and he saw time late in each of the last two regular-season games.
Many pundits believe the Ravens are the most dangerous team heading into the playoffs and one that nobody in the AFC that is in pursuit of a championship should want to face in January.
In addition to being the right blend of both of the types of teams that are typically poised to make a strong playoff push, Baltimore possesses two of the things that travel well during this time of year with the stakes as high as ever and that is a dominant ground game and a strong defense.
The Ravens finished the regular season as the No.1 rushing offense for the second straight year and their defense finished as the second-best in points allowed.
Not only are they primed and poised to make a deeper postseason run this year, but they are also well equipped, in the right mindset after having to fight for their playoff lives for over a month, and are getting their key pieces back at the perfect time.