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Ravens

There is something wrong with the Baltimore Ravens.

It hurts to write that out as a Ravens fan, but it’s true. In a wide-open AFC North division where all four teams have nearly identical strengths and weaknesses, I can’t see the defending Super Bowl champions reaching the NFL playoffs this season.

I’m not grabbing the torch and pitchfork just yet, mind you. John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and company had an pressing job to do in years past:  win the Super Bowl, which they did in unexpectedly spectacular fashion. But the way in which they won it, with countless veterans on their last legs, was never going to lead to a dynasty in Baltimore. Perhaps the team’s current struggles are to be expected.

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On the other hand, a lot has gone wrong where it shouldn’t have. Ray Rice has been awful. The player whose role cost offensive coordinator Cam Cameron his job last year has averaged 2.67 yards per carry in 2013. Rice insists his injury in Week 2 isn’t an issue, which if true would be disturbing indeed–he is playing like a running back in steep decline.

Moreover, Rice is seeing almost none of the passing game, whereas he used to be arguably the best pass-catching back in the league. Whether this is poor play-calling or inadequate protection is debatable, but what is clear is that the protection is indeed poor and Baltimore’s offensive line is absurdly weak.  So weak that making Bernard Pierce the starter won’t change much at all. John Harbaugh recently reinforced this: We think we have two very good backs,” he said rather optimistically, “but I don’t think [replacing Rice as the starter] would be the solution.” Perhaps the line’s weakness means that there is no solution, so Rice and Flacco must feel the burden.

And speaking of Flacco…

The cliché that Flacco’s new contract ruined the team is both overused and false. He’s the greatest quarterback in franchise history (for whatever that’s worth), and he was essentially unstoppable while on his way to winning the Super Bowl.  His salary is too high in the strictest sense, but no way does an NFL general manager say no to a reigning Super Bowl MVP. Ozzie Newsome has a long history of excellence at drafting and working within the salary cap, so the contract should not be a concern.

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The problem is that Flacco is having a nightmare of a season. He’s been picked off nine times (on pace to beat his career worst of 12 by a large margin). His NFL Passer Rating of 79.3 is another career-worst, lower than his 80.3 in his rookie year.

It obviously doesn’t help that Flacco is essentially playing with one decent receiver in Torrey Smith. Nor does it help that the line keeps crashing down around him–he never had the escapability of a Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin III. But the Ravens have lost a number of excruciatingly close games in large part because Flacco this year has tended to give the ball away at important moments. That’s what’s most troubling of all.

In years past, Flacco was usually a solid quarterback with a high ceiling that he tended to hit in big games. He’s outplayed Tom Brady in the playoffs twice, both in Boston. To see him killing potential game-winning drives against Buffalo with foolish late picks is unsettling.

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The defense is the team’s saving grace, as it’s often been for the Ravens, but no one would mistake this edition for the Lewis-and-Reed-led juggernauts of the past. The defense is inconsistent, but on a brighter note it is also young and promising. Newsome did draft exceptionally well (again), and with Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb still around to accompany Matthew Elam and Arthur Brown, there’s reason to believe that this defense will eventually mature into an elite outfit again.

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The problem with looking to the future is that it’s very difficult  to imagine the other side of the ball with the same confidence. Ray Rice might be crumbling before our eyes. Flacco is playing like Elvis Grbac (Remember him?). Smith is good receiver, but not a particularly versatile one. The absence of Dennis Pitta removes much of the remaining offensive threat.

The rest of the division offers some hope in that it is one of the most balanced in football, leaving an opening for the Ravens if they should find their old form. The Steelers are poor this year (cold comfort for Ravens fans), but the Bengals and Browns have arguably stronger defenses than Baltimore’s. Cleveland’s defense in particular is notable for being as young as it is dangerous.

AFC North

Even if we accept that this is a rebuilding year, where do the Ravens go from here? The team’s presumed strengths aren’t strengths anymore. The defense is an embryonic work in progress, the deep-throwing quarterback has no one to throw deep to, and the ground game is badly lacking. The Ravens, defending Super Bowl Champions, stand at risk of entering serious decline.

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