The Baltimore Ravens (8-7) have a lot riding on this week’s matchup with the AFC North division leader. The Ravens are heading to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio to take on the Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) in the last game of the 2013 regular season. The game is set for 1:00pm EST on CBS on Sunday, December 29th.
The Ravens are currently battling it out for the sixth and final wild card spot in the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins (8-7), San Diego Chargers (8-7), and Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) all have a chance to clinch the final berth, making Week 17 one of the most important weeks of this season.
If the Ravens do not win on Sunday, there is still a slim chance that the reigning Super Bowl champions will have another chance at defending their title, but a win would be ideal.
Here’s a look at what the Ravens need to do in order to defeat the Bengals and grab the final wild card spot.
Get their heads in the game
The Ravens’ devastating loss to the New England Patriots last week was uncharacteristic for a team with playoff chances on the line. The team looked flat, as if nobody wanted to play. The Ravens did not look like a team that had won their last four consecutive games. Every aspect of their play seemed subpar.
Flacco was 22-38 on completions and threw two interceptions before being benched late in the fourth quarter. The offensive line had it’s struggles, allowing Flacco to get sacked four times and was responsible for a fumble during the game. Ray Rice only had 11 carries for 40 yards. Receivers weren’t getting open and passes weren’t being brought in.
And that was just on offense. Even the seemingly super-human Justin Tucker missed a 37-yard field goal.
All in all, it was a sloppy game on the Ravens’ part. If they want to make it to the playoffs, Sunday afternoon is their last chance to prove that they are supposed to be there. Physically, the Ravens have shown that they are ready, but mentally, the team has to put it all out on the line if they want another shot at a championship.
Flacco must get back to form
In Week 15, quaterback Joe Flacco took a hit from Detroit Lions’ linebacker DeAndre Levy. Flacco suffered a mild MCL sprain, but he practiced with a knee brace leading up to last Sunday’s game. The quarterback was listed as “questionable”, but was likely to play.
Flacco started for the Ravens against the Patriots in Week 16, but he did not seem to be his usual self. It was believed that the knee brace was affecting him more than anticipated, but Flacco told reporters after the 41-7 loss that the brace had nothing to do with his poor play.
Regardless of whether or not the brace had an impact, Flacco is said to be wearing it again for this Sunday’s game and the Ravens need him to be at the top of his game. The main thing will be his mobility. Flacco did not seem to be able to move around in the pocket last Sunday. While his knee has had a little time to heal, he will need to make sure he is agile enough to run out of trouble when face-to-face with a defender.
Jimmy Smith will play a big role
The Ravens have begun to rely more on third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith. Smith was able to stand out this season after proving his ability to shut down three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the Ravens’ 18-16 victory over the Detroit Lions.
Smith is going to be put to the test again this week against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green.
Green is currently ranked fourth in the league in receiving yards with 1,365 and has 10 touchdowns on the season. The Ravens could be looking toward Smith as one of the leaders of the secondary alongside cornerback Lardarius Webb. But being a leader on Sunday will start with Smith limiting Green’s involvement on offense.