By Norm Elrod
Can the Baltimore Ravens (6-5) make a playoff run? The future didn’t look good two weeks ago; it looks better now, with two more wins in their pocket and a rookie quarterback living up to expectations. Early reports suggest that the Ravens will stick with Lamar Jackson against the Atlanta Falcons (4-7) in Week 13, even though Joe Flacco may be healthy enough to play.
The Falcons, currently tied for last in the NFC South, have had trouble taking flight this season. Four of their seven losses have come by less than a touchdown, and to some decent teams. If half of those losses had played out a little differently, the Falcons would be a Wild Card contender, rather than a statistical long-shot. It will up to Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to try to salvage what’s left of a disappointing season against the rejuvenated Ravens.
The Ravens offense under Jackson has been way more dynamic than it was previously under Flacco. While the rookie QB hasn’t established himself as a passer — putting up 328 yards total on 27-44 passing over the last two weeks — he’s certainly a threat to run. Jackson carried 37 times for 190 yards since taking over as starter. Add to that the emergence of undrafted running back Gus Edwards, who has 40 carries for 233 yards during that same span, and the team now has a ground game that must be respected.
The Ravens piled up those yards against the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, two of the NFL’s bottom-tier defenses. The Falcons’ defense falls in that same category. They give up 123.7 rushing yards per game and 27.9 points, both among the League’s worst. In past seasons, this unit has improved as the year progressed, but that hasn’t happened this year. Injuries certainly haven’t helped either. Middle linebacker Deion Jones (who is back practicing with the first team) and strong safety Keanu Neal both went down early in the season and the unit, in its current form, just isn’t very good. They’ll struggle to slow down Jackson and Edwards on the fast field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But can Jackson and company match point totals with the high-flying Falcons at home? Matt Ryan and Julio Jones still rank among the most formidable passing duos in the NFL. Ryan leads the league in passing yards, putting up 335 yards per game, and trails only Drew Brees in completion percentage, connecting on 71.4 % of his passes. Jones averages 118.6 receiving yards per game to lead the League. The Falcons rushing attack has been virtually non-existent, with Devonta Freeman hurt most of the season. Tevin Coleman hasn’t managed to fill his shoes.
The Falcons passing attack will have to deal with a formidable Ravens defense, though one that’s proved to be a little inconsistent as the season’s progressed. They’re prone to lapses, even against teams they should handle pretty easily, like the Oakland Raiders. Baltimore still gives up a League-low 295.4 total yards and 18 points per game, but they’ve somehow forgotten how to force turnovers, with just five interceptions and five fumbles (three recovered) to date.
Defensive lapses can be very dangerous against an offense that can score quickly, like the Falcons. And the Ravens have been prone to them of late. If the Ryan, Jones and company jump out to an early lead, or any lead, the Ravens will struggle to keep up. The rookie Jackson — a dynamic play-maker with his legs — isn’t ready to win games with his arm. And even a so-so Falcons defense can limit a one-dimensional offense forced to play down its strength. Rookie back Edwards will be slowed a little by ankle issues, which will further limit the Ravens’ offensive options. Look for the Falcons to muster enough offensive production to down the Ravens at home.
SportsLine analyst Tom Fornelli sees it much the same way…
The Ravens offense has been more explosive with Lamar Jackson at QB instead of Joe Flacco, but I’m skeptical it can continue for very long. If you run a one-dimensional offense, NFL defenses will figure out ways to take that dimension away from you and force you to try something else. That’s why I am rolling with the Falcons here. Lamar’s been fine at home, but this spread is an overreaction to Baltimore’s last two games.