2012 Season Predictions: First Quarter

This is the first of four prediction posts for the 2012 Ravens season, each one previewing a different quarter of the team’s schedule. Up first, naturally, is the inaugural four-game slate, featuring the Bengals, Eagles, Patriots and Browns.

Defense to Offense

I have my doubts about the Ravens this year, most of them stemming from the lackluster performance of the defense this preseason. Granted, new defensive coordinator Dean Pees probably didn’t show anything meaningful before the real games started, but the loss of Terrell Suggs, 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, does indeed look like it’s going to hurt. Sergio Kindle, the hot pass rushing prospect we drooled over on draft day two years ago, still hasn’t recovered from a skull fracture that permanently deafened him in one ear and, perhaps irreparably, set back some basic motor skills. Courtney Upshaw, the kid we drafted right before Suggs went public with his torn ACL, has yet to show the flashes of power and skill that sack maestros like Suggs and Peter Boulware were already showing by this point. Paul Kruger, a serviceable to above average linebacker, has been with us for a few years, but also sets the edge poorly against the run, leaving us open to counters, stretches and screens. And these pass rushing woes are even more glaring given how average the secondary looked this preseason (aside from future Pro Bowler Lardarius Webb). Second-year corner Jimmy Smith has size and speed, but has yet to learn how into translate being close to a receiver to making a play on the ball. And Cary Williams, who has been caught way out of position over and over again, is going to regret not signing the long-term contract the Ravens offered him a month ago.

Still, though, there is a lot to feel excited and positive about in Ravenland–and, for the first time in a long time, that reason is not related to Ray Lewis or Ed Reed. I’m talking about the Ravens offense, two words that don’t typically mean good things when they’re so close together in a sentence. On offense, the 2012 Ravens might be strongest, most dangerous and most complete group that has ever been assembled in post-Unitas Baltimore. It’s not just because Ray Rice is still a slippery, game-changing lightning bolt. It’s primarily because the passing game looks the most aggressive and versatile it has ever looked under Cam Cameron (and has maybe ever looked period, considering this is the best QB-RB-WR combination in franchise history.) This development comes mostly thanks to Joe Flacco, who, entering his fifth year, is rounding out his repertoire with the help of Jim Caldwell, an offseason acquisition who (despite a laughable effort as head coach in Indy last year) is quite the “Quarterback Whisperer,” as a friend in a Ravens forum posted recently. Caldwell helped make Peyton Manning into “Peyton Manning,” and anyone who has watched the Ravens operate in their vibrant, gunslinger “sugar huddle” this preseason has seen it at work. (On one particular play, for which I wish I could video link, Flacco held out the ball, straight-armed and convincing, to a raring-to-go Ray Rice; only to pull away, see a totally sucked-in defense, and jump up and laser a touchdown to the back of the end zone. … I got chills.)

It can’t be overstated how important it is that Caldwell has finally kicked the Forrest Gump braces (applied by Cameron) off Flacco’s legs: Only two of the 13 teams the Ravens face this year do not have a Pro Bowl quarterback under center. I might have exaggerated my concern for our defense, since I still think that, as usual, the men in purple are going to end up being creative, intimidating and stout on that side of the ball. But good defense or not, this is a schedule that demands points be scored. In an unprecedented twist of narrative, the Ravens offense is going to have to carry the load for a fair share of games. The good news, though, is I think Joe & Co. are up to the challenge.

Predicted Regular Season Finish: 11-5

WINS: Bengals, Patriots, Browns, Cowboys, Raiders, Steelers and Broncos at home; Chiefs, Browns and Redskins away

LOSSES: Giants at home; Eagles, Texans, Steelers and Chargers away

Bengals at Home: Win

I don’t like the Bengals. I don’t like the Steelers or the Browns either, of course, but at least those guys play the part: The Steelers are head-hunting jerks led by a fat rapist, but they’re consistently decent to good and have won a couple Super Bowls; the Browns are comically bad, and so they comport themselves with all the self-seriousness of a court jester covered in tomatoes. The Bengals, though? The Bengals have made the playoffs exactly three times in 22 years and they’re already strutting around like they’re cock of the walk. Because, I guess, Jerome Simpson can somersault into the end zone. Because they went 9-7 last year. Because their ginger quarterback can throw a football FIFTY WHOLE YARDS, YOU GUYS. (This is the NFL, son. Don’t brag about that.) Here is a stat for the 64 convicted felons associated with the Bengals to put in their hashpipes and smoke: All seven of the Bengals’ losses last year came to teams that ended up making the playoffs. You know, actual good teams. They lost to the Ravens twice. They lost to the Steelers twice. They lost to the Niners. They lost to the Texans. And they lost to the (pre-Tebow) Broncos. Related fact: Joe Flacco threw for more yardage than, as many touchdowns as, and fewer interceptions than Andy Dalton, despite the fact that Ravens receivers had the fourth-most drops in the league (26). So, moreover, the fact that Andy Dalton went to the Pro Bowl is lemur shit.

This isn’t to say the Bengals don’t have talent. They’re talented on both sides of the ball: Their defense is sneaky-good, and was actually part of the reason Cam Cameron didn’t trust Flacco with a gunslinger offense before now. (He threw four picks against the Bengals in the 2010 season opener at Cincinnati.) On Monday night, however, the Bengals are going to be a much different unit from the one that pestered the Ravens last year and feasted on bad teams. They will likely be missing Dre Kirkpatrick, a defensive playmaker. Cedric Benson, who typically does well against the Ravens, now plays for the Bears. Jerome Simpson and Jordan Shipley have both been waived, and that leaves the best wide receiver like totally ever A.J. Green free to enjoy double teams. Also, the game is in Baltimore, where the Ravens are 73-23 since 2000, second only to the Patriots. (That is, second to none when cheating garbage twat-algae are disqualified.) Finally, the Ravens are going to be playing with high emotion following the sudden death of Art Modell, the man who is the reason Baltimore even has football again. This game might be a close one, if only because the Bengals always play feisty. Then again, it might not be, especially if the Ravens come out with their hair on fire–for the season opener, for the Monday Night lights, for the memory of Art … and for the eff-you desire to keep the Bengals in their place.

Eagles Away: Loss

Dirty little secret: the Baltimore Ravens don’t travel that well. We don’t exactly travel poorly, but we generally travel just well enough for three things to happen, none of them good: 1) for our doors to get blown off completely (Giants 2008, Chargers 2011); 2) for our doors to get blown off completely at the start, only for us to climb back into it and almost win before getting punched in the gut (Vikings 2009, Falcons 2010, Patriots 2010); or 3) for us to sink to the putrescent level of less talented but more focused competition and let them beat us by five points or something equally redonk (Jaguars and Seahawks 2011). I don’t know what kind of team the Eagles will be this year, but they seemed to be forming cohesion and identity toward the end of last season. Now they’re either going to be a good Bad Team or a bad Good Team–which makes sense, since the Eagles are carbon copies of the Cowboys (whom we play later): as explosive and big play-oriented as they are poor at game management.

I like our chances at limiting DeSean Jackson to one jaw-dropping play, and I accept that this play will occur on special teams, as our kickoff and punt coverage suck like Rex Ryan at a pedicure salon. I like our chances at hitting Michael Vick in his popsickle stick-strength ribs so hard that he lays prostrate and moaning on the turf for three minutes, forcing NBC to run a rock-music montage of all his recent injuries and ailments. Sadly, though, I also like our chances at playing down to the Eagles’ level (yes, I think the Ravens are the better team) and holding in there before screwing up at a pivotal moment. It’s going to be either a Ray Rice fumble (because he’s kind of overdue [I know that sounds stupid]) or a Joe Flacco interception, which I think comes after he posts a surprisingly good game against a relatively good defense. And I think the Eagles will run and throw decently well on a Ravens squad that will not have fully gelled yet.

Patriots at Home: Win

For both the Ravens and Patriots, this is the marquee game of the early season. Shadows of the title game from eight months ago obviously loom large. If said game had been played in Baltimore, probably the Ravens win. That the game was played in New England is Baltimore’s own fault: While we were able to sweep the AFC North (which sent three teams to the playoffs), we also sleptwalk through games against the dregs of the league, losing to the Jaguars–who as a team posted barely more yardage than Joe Flacco did as one person–and the Seahawks, who don’t so much have a QB position as they do a turnstile of megafail. The Ravens will be chomping at the bit to banish last season’s demons of “what if” and “should’ve been.” Moreover, this game has playoff implications. The Patriots have the easiest schedule in the league this year. With both the Ravens and the Evil Empire vying, as usual, for not just a spot in the playoffs but for good seeding as well, a head-to-head win will be nice to have come January.

I’ll be bold and predict that the Ravens win this game. Holding with tradition, the Ravens defense will likely do well against Tom Brady, who doesn’t strive for greatness against Ray Lewis and Ed Reed but for efficiency. Brady, no doubt, is going to be happy to see archnemesis Terrell Suggs standing on the sidelines, but there is also much hand-wringing in New England over their new-ish offensive line, which lost veteran left tackle Matt Light this offseason and is on the verge of losing veteran Brian Waters, too. Where the Ravens break from tradition, I believe, and what might help us win the game with surprising comfort, is that our offense has the potential to eviscerate that soft Patriots defense, which gets by more on smoke and mirrors and guts than actual talent. Those intangibles, however effective they may be for stretches, are going to be hampered when the Patriots line up in front of a frothing Baltimore crowd that would rather see Mark Sanchez throw five touchdowns on us than lose AGAIN to the team ranked third on our Hate List.

I’m sure New England fans are justifying a win by reminding everyone that they beat us with a bad defense last year and will have an even better defense this year, since really their defense could only be worse if one of their corners fell into a diabetic coma during a live play. (Bill Belichick is such a genius! His defenses are great when he has Hall of Famers! And when he knows what the quarterback’s signals are beforehand!) But I like Flacco working in the shotgun sugar/no huddle–his strength since Delaware–against a gimmick secondary. Also, I like Bernard Pollard.

Browns at Home: Win

I recently Googled “most useless country in the world” and got back Uruguay, Andorra and Greenland as suggestions. I also once had a friend who vehemently hated the Browns. Hating the Browns is about as worthwhile as hating Uruguay, Andorra or Greenland. I say this for several reasons. 1) The Browns have not beat the Ravens in five years. The last time they did, Brian Billick was head coach and Joe Flacco was a senior in college. 2) For the last few seasons, my dad and I have purposely made our one annual trip to M&T Bank Stadium for the Browns game, mostly because we’re so emotionally lazy that we don’t want to bother going downtown just to see the Ravens lose. 3) My dad and I have also done this because Browns games have recently been showing up around Christmas, transforming the whole city and stadium into one big family, relaxed but excited to unwrap a shiny Ravens win. (This year my dad messed up and got us Cowboys tickets instead. UGH.) 4) I thought the Browns’ head coach was Mike Holmgren before I went to fact-check just now. It’s not him. And I very much doubt that anyone reading this knows who it is.

The only interesting thing about this game is its potential to be a trap for the Ravens. If Baltimore loses to New England in the week preceding, the Browns are going to get a shellacking. If we beat New England, as I think we will, this has the dangerous makings of a letdown game. While the Harbaugh Ravens have generally handled bad to average teams, last year a trend emerged: lack of focus in the week following a big win. Last season’s two most inexplicable losses, Jacksonville and Seattle, came on the heels of two highly satisfying wins against conference rivals and playoff teams. The worse loss, Seattle, was perhaps the worst of John Harbaugh’s head coaching career, and it came after the Ravens’ last-second finish over the Steelers at Heinz Field, which was his most thrilling victory. That pattern is the best thing the Browns have going for them, especially given that the Ravens will be playing on a short week and in primetime. The only problem is that the Browns, too, will be playing on a short week and in primetime, and they’re the ones who have to catch a plane and haven’t played on a national stage in a generation. Furthermore, QB Brandon Weeden and RB Trent Richardson (who didn’t even play in the preseason) are both rookies, and are probably not going to know what hit them when they start butting heads in the black-and-blue AFC North.

It might not be a runaway in terms of points, as the Browns are never total pushovers on defense: Last year they were second only to the Steelers in pass plays of 20+ yards (43), and were fifth in the league in yardage per pass attempt (6.7). But go ahead and chalk this one up as another Ravens Over Browns Semi-Enthusiastic Beatdown–a young tradition. My only regret is that I won’t be there with my gigantic “Crush the Browns on Sunday” poster board in candy cane lettering.

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