Come to the NFL’s version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and see what the Candy Man might be conjuring.
Few of us called that Charlie Batch would beat the Ravens on Sunday… in one of the toughest stadiums around to get a road win. But he did. And the Steelers just may have moved the division to the cusp of the tipping point in the process. A lot has to go right — or wrong — but the Bengals could be thankful for that win by the end of the month.
The Bengals didn’t leap over the Steelers in the division on Sunday like you figured, if you assumed a Ravens win. But the Evil Empire trimmed the Ravens’ three-game lead in the division. Toppling the Ravens from their perch atop the AFCN now hinges mainly on the Redskins on Sunday.
Except for detonating a truly sad Raiders team, the Ravens’ offense has been a shadow of the team we saw at the start of the season. They scored 23+ points in five of their first six games (31+ in three of them), but have notched 23+ just twice in the past six games. True, they have faced better defenses in the last six games, but they will see tough defenses for the rest of the year.
The key for the ‘Skins is, of course, stopping Ray Rice. Ray is on pace for 1103 yds. Not bad at all, but that would be his worst year since his rookie season. He has been held under 50 yds rushing four times this year, and has surpassed 80 yds only four times. With the #4 overall rushing defense, the Redskins have the capability to hold him in check on the ground. (They just can’t forget about him as a catching threat.)
On the flip side, the Ravens’ defense has been oddly mediocre. Suggs’ torn biceps may or may not keep him out of the game, but it certainly won’t help their cause either way. RG3 is finding his rhythm. He may not blow the game open, but he is making plays at key moments.
The game is no gimme for either team. I am not predicting a Redskins win, but there is good reason to think it could happen. If it does, look at what happens from there.
Week 15: A now 9-4 Ravens team would host the sizzling, Manning-powered Broncos, whom I think would give them a rare second-straight home loss. With a 8-5 Steelers team (I’m assuming they beat the Chargers in the Pitts this week) playing in Dallas, and a hopefully 8-5 Bengals team playing a dreadful Eagles team, the current two-game lead could very well be gone.
Week 16: With three 9-5 teams tied for the division, the Bengals and Steelers face off in a game that even now has huge playoff implications for both teams. At the same time, the Ravens will square off against the Giants. I haven’t the slightest clue how this game might end up. The Giants tend to end strong, but are so unpredictable. For a Ravens team foundering through a 3-game losing streak while watching the Bengals and Steelers catch up to them, would they come together to buoy their season, or would a little desperation set in?
Week 17: Could you even imagine the final game in Cincinnati with the Ravens tied with or even a game behind the Bengals? The odds of that happening are pretty low right now. (So were the odds of the St. Louis Cardinals making the MLB playoffs with two weeks to go in the 2011 season.) If the Ravens came to town having lost the previous four (or even three of the previous four) to play a Bengals team that had won their previous seven (or six of their previous seven), who would you put your money on?
Again, this is all more “possible” than “probable” at this point. But I’m not making far-fetched assumptions either. There are no major upsets, like assuming the Jaguars go to into M&T and beat them. I’m just saying that Ravens fans shouldn’t get too comfortable yet. And that Bengals need to keep focused on the playoffs. The prize is getting closer.
A lot hinges on this week.