Post your comments and opinions throughout the Ravens-Eagles game today in the Open Thread on this post. Unfortunately, I will not be able to join you as I will be in my seats at the game, freezing my butt off and enjoying every minute of it!
If the Ravens, or the Eagles for that matter, want to stay in the hunt for the playoffs, this is a must-win game as both teams trail in their divisions, although the Ravens are the only one who actually has a chance of winning their division title, while the Eagles only chance appears to make it through the Wild Card.
The cold weather may affect the fans in the stands, but should not make any difference to the players, unless there is enough of a breeze to affect the kicking game or the flight of the ball. However, the weather reports I've seen are expecting a high of 40 degrees with winds around 5-10 mph, so the weather should not be a factor in this game. The main factor that will determine the outcome will be which team makes the most critical mistakes. Both teams put strong defenses out on the gridiron that can capitalize on their opponents turnovers. The Eagles possess the better offense, although you wouldn't have known it by the result of their most recent game, a 13-all tie at Cincinnati last Sunday. At the same time, while the Ravens were averaging around 35 points per game during their four game winning streak, that all came to a screeching halt when they could only manage ten in their 30-10 loss last week to the NY Giants. So while another tie game is always a possibility, something has to give when they meet today in Baltimore.
The Baltimore Ravens have the third best home field winning percentage in the entire NFL since the 2000 season. Do not underestimate the difference this makes to the Ravens, as well as the disadvantage the Eagles face on the road, as witnessed by last week's embarassment against the Bengals. The Ravens regularly score around 10 more points per game at home than they do on the road, although they have won three of six this year as visitors and just finished a stretch where they played five of six on the road. Now they return home to M&T Bank Stadium, where they will be happy to play four of their final six there the rest of the season. If they can sweep the remainder of their home schedule and split the other two on the road, they should be in fine shape to make the post season. If not, then all bets are off, as the playoff race will be hotly contested, with a bunch of teams in line to fight for the two Wild Card slots. Therefore, this game is key if they want to stay on track for meaningful games in December and postseason play in January.
A win for the Ravens will all but eliminate the Eagles from post season consideration as they will drop to the basement of the NFC East. Thus, the Eagles will be playing as hard as the Ravens to stay in contention. The Ravens need to play their type of game, running the ball effectively behind their makeshift offensive line, which has been a pleasant surprise so far, but is severely limited by injuries. If they are able to sustain their rushing success, be it through Willis McGahee, Le'Ron McClain or even rookie Ray Rice, that will take the pressure off of rookie QB Joe Flacco, to carry the team on his arm. In the Ravens victories, Flacco has had great success throwing the ball when needed, as the defenses have been stacking the line and he has come through in a way that has made his progress a lot more advanced than anyone would have thought. His arm is as strong as anyone's in the league and he has limited his turnovers in our wins, but has thrown costly interceptions in our losses. To have to rely on him to move the ball against a tough Philly defense would not be the recipe the Ravens are looking for Sunday. However, with an effective running game Sunday, Flacco can complement the rushing attack with passes that will impress the Eagles players as much as they will frustrate them.
Defensively, the Ravens need to shut down the running game, with or without Brian Westbrook, who will be a gametime decision. Either way, the Eagles will need to pass the ball effectively in order to beat the Ravens. There is no Brandon Jacobs on the Eagles, so they will not be able to run the ball like the Giants did last week. Expect Donovan McNabb to put the ball up at least 40 times, and if so, I expect at least two picks that should give us the short fields and some easy points on the board. The pass rush needs to either sack him, hit him, or harass him enough to make him run for his life and pay the price for leaving the pocket. Our defensive secondary needs to step up and blanket his two deep threats, Hank Baskett and DeSean Jackson, while not letting the Eagles tight ends or running backs get open in those short, underneath slants that have plagued the Ravens this season.
I fully expect a solid defensive effort and a typical Ravens ball control, timeclock consuming offense as we win not only the time of possession battle, but the turnover battle as well. We should stay solid on Special Teams, and could break the game open with some good returns, while limiting the Eagles at the same time. If we win those battles, then we will win the war as well. McNabb will probably put up big numbers, but the Ravens Red Zone defense will stiffen up and limit the scoring enough to let our offense win the game. Look for a low scoring game that ends up looking closer than the game actually is. I am predicting that the Ravens will take a decent lead into the latter stages of the game, with the Eagles scoring to make it close at the end. However, another turnover will seal the deal and the Ravens will run out the clock to win and move to 7-4, and stay within striking distance of the Pittsburgh Steelers, making their December 14th rematch here in Baltimore look even more like the divsion title deciding game.