The New York Giants (8-6), losers by the score of 34-0 last week, come into M&T Bank Stadium as a 2.5 point favorite to face the Baltimore Ravens (9-5).
It's scary to see the lack of respect the Baltimore Ravens are getting as they are almost a field goal underdog to a team that got shut out by almost five touchdowns last week. Sure, the Ravens have lost three in a row, including two straight home losses, but a home dog?
Perhaps its the way the Ravens have lost, two of those games on the final play before getting embarrassed in front of their own fans last week by the Denver Broncos. At the same time, the New York Giants were getting shut out by the Atlanta Falcons and have lost three out of their last five just like the Ravens.
So then, what makes them the favorite if both teams are pretty much sucking it big time right now? It all comes down to the quarterbacks. Despite the sub-par season Eli Manning is having, his Giants have the reputation of revving it up in December and making a run at the Super Bowl, winning it twice over the past five years.
Meanwhile, Joe Flacco is having another up and down season and lately it's been all down when the chips are on the line. Three straight games with fumbles that have either turned the tide in the game or started it off on a bad note. The Ravens defense can no longer give him the ball on a short field, nor can they hold a lead, so now the pressure to carry the team is on his shoulders and he is just not proving up to the task.
However, Sunday's game is absolutely a playoff game for both, with actually more on the line for the Giants than the Ravens. If the Ravens win, they are the AFC North champs, regardless what happens in week 17. If they lose Sunday, but win next week at the Cincinnati Bengals, they will also be division champs and nothing will change. Baltimore is already in the playoffs even if they lose their final two games and don't win the division title.
On the other hand, New York is mathematically in 3rd place in the NFC East right now but would make the playoffs with wins n their final two games. They can still make the post season if they lose Sunday, but they would need a lot of help to get there.
Therefore, both teams will look to pull out all the stops to seek a win. The Ravens will need to get the ball in the hands of their biggest play-maker, Ray Rice, be it on the ground or on swing passes and screens. The Giants run defense is soft up the middle and if the Ravens can open some holes, it will go a long way to stopping the Giants pass rush from overwhelming Flacco, which is where he folds, crumbles and is pressured into making huge mistakes.
Speaking of the New York pass rush, it has been surprisingly weak this season and if Joe gets time, that is when he shines and can take advantage of his rocket arm. For the Ravens offense, the key to the game will be protecting Flacco. That has been a problem all season and will more than likely determine the outcome when all is said and done.
Defensively, the Ravens have had issues everywhere you look. Their defensive line gets pushed back three yards before contact is made with opposing running backs. Their pass pressure has been invisible at times, making one scratch their head when they choose to rush only three players at critical moments when they can't even get pressure with four guys.
The secondary plays so far off the line that quick hits, slants and WR screens are a virtual certainty to succeed. The deep middle is largely ignored and Ed Reed either takes too many chances, is late covering, and can't make the tackle even if he is in position. That said, for whatever reason, the Ravens are a tough team to score against in their Red Zone. This team does have play-makers and if Eli Manning is off target or pressured, they can give us brief glimpses of that ball-hawking Ravens defense of the past.
There is too much on the line for Baltimore this weekend for the team to not give its best effort. They are at home, which until recently, almost guaranteed victory. Their fans will be in a feeding frenzy, especially with the anticipated return of Ray Lewis, and if Lewis emerges from the tunnel in the pre-game ceremonies, they will feel the ground shake all the way back to the Big Apple.
The game appears statistically close but the intangibles of the home-field advantage, the return of Ray Lewis and what's on the line will give the Ravens a slight advantage that I see them finally not blowing in the games closing moments. Expect a street fight, as the Giants are a wounded animal as well and fighting for their lives. However, this will be the Ravens day for a change of pace, and a rebound victory will change the tone of desperation in Baltimore for at least a couple weeks.