WASHINGTON — By virtue of not playing at all, the Baltimore Ravens won during their bye week.
Few teams needed a week off as badly as the Ravens. Baltimore hit the midway mark of their season after a disheartening home loss to their hated rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the Ravens’ third-straight defeat — the fourth in their last five outings — a costly setback that dropped them to 4-5 and leaves them two-and-a-half games behind the same team they beat soundly in Week 4.
Even before it began, Baltimore’s 2018 season was deemed pivotal. Owner Steve Bisciotti flirted with the idea of moving on from coach John Harbaugh after three-straight non-playoff seasons and another in a long line of stagnating offenses. Such a move happens in other NFL cities, but not Baltimore; the Ravens have had only three coaches in their 22-year history.
But, Brian Billick — Harbaugh’s predecessor, who also won a Super Bowl — never went three-straight years without a playoff appearance. And, he lasted seven full seasons after his title before the Ravens moved on. This is Harbaugh’s sixth season removed from his championship.
Baltimore’s issues are well documented. Though the 27th-ranked run game isn’t exactly helping, beleaguered quarterback Joe Flacco’s play is especially glaring — his current 61.2 completion percentage is worse than Jameis Winston’s, Brock Osweiler’s and Blake Bortles’, and the sad part about his mediocre 84.2 QB rating is that it’s his highest since 2014.
Even the Ravens’ defense is in question. Though Baltimore entered its bye allowing the fewest yards per game and the second-fewest points per game, the defense falls short of what some breathlessly call the league’s best, forcing the third-fewest takeaways in the league and getting exposed against the likes of the Saints, Panthers and, yes, even the up-and-down Bengals. It’s hard to get a beat on where they’d be without feasting on the offensively-inept Bills, Browns and Broncos.
But, while patience is running out in Charm City, it shouldn’t be just yet. The Ravens are underwhelming, but firing Harbaugh or benching Flacco now would be a vast overreaction to their present circumstance.
Allow me to break it down. After Week 9, Baltimore was graded as having the eighth-easiest remaining schedule, which includes five of the six worst-scoring defenses in the league. Assuming the injuries to the offensive line aren’t long-term, the offense — which has its best receiving corps since the 2012 Super Bowl season — still has a chance to get on track. Perhaps the defense starts taking the ball away more frequently, since turnovers tend to come in droves.
Baltimore also gets the benefit of playing some of the teams they need to leapfrog. The Ravens are ninth in the AFC, but just a game behind Cincinnati for the sixth and final playoff spot. A win over the Bengals on Sunday closes that gap, and their Week 6 win over the Titans gives them a tiebreaker edge over Tennessee. Eighth-place Miami could get Ryan Tannehill back for the stretch run, but December matchups with the Patriots and Vikings probably means a late fade.
Assuming the Ravens can beat the Bengals and the awful Raiders, they’re in good shape for a crucial December stretch. They’ll head out on the road to face the Falcons, Chiefs and Chargers — all playoff contenders, but none that figure to be unbeatable if Baltimore’s defense holds up. If they can steal one or two of those games and beat the teams they should, 9-7 or 10-6 should be enough to lock down that 6-seed.
So, don’t fire Harbaugh. Flacco might be too hurt to play for a while, but if Baltimore wants any hope of Lamar Jackson becoming Patrick Mahomes 2.0, they won’t throw him into the fire but keep playing him in small doses. Neither a coaching nor a permanent quarterback change is likely to improve the team’s middle-of-the-road 23.7 points per game average anyway.
Though Baltimore has precedent for a desperate-times, desperate-measures move — the one and only time a team fired its own Super Bowl-winning coach in-season was the Colts in 1972 — the Ravens need to stay the course and hope the ball starts bouncing their way again.
You know, like the 2000 team that didn’t score a touchdown for a month managed to hold it together to finish 12-4 and win a Super Bowl.
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