NFL Handicapping: Time For Ravens to Panic?
by Trevor Whenham - 10/23/2009
After three weeks of the current NFL season it wasn't very hard to make the compelling argument that the Baltimore Ravens were the best team in the NFL. They had taken care of business, and they'd looked pretty good doing it. Fast forward just three weeks, though, and now they are at 3-3, riding a three-game losing streak, and down to third in the tough AFC North. Just as easy as it was to jump on their bandwagon early on, it's now easy to look to jump off. So, what's the deal with this team? Are they any good? Is this recent streak of futility just a blip, or was their hot start just a fluke? How do we deal with them as bettors? Here's a look as they use their bye week to try to get back to winning:
Quarterback - Good teams usually are built around good quarterback play. There are exceptions, of course - like the Ravens team that won the Super Bowl. For the most part, though, you can assess a team's chances by the performance of their pivot. You can also measure a quarterback by the progress they are making. On both accounts the Ravens are in a good place. Joe Flacco is showing that last year was no fluke because he has taken steps forward - his completion percentage and yards per attempt are up, his passing yards are on pace to shatter his total of last year, and so are his touchdowns, and his QB rating is up by almost 14 points. The only real knock on him is that he is throwing interceptions at a slightly higher rate than last year, but even that's not a big concern because he has improved his TD-to-Int ratio dramatically. This team may or may not get things turned around this year, but if they don't then it won't be because of Flacco.
Offense - Beyond Flacco, the offense has been strong enough that it isn't a reason to be particularly concerned. They have the seventh ranked offense by totals yards, and are in Top 10 in both running and passing. Balance is the key to offensive success, and they are balanced. You can look to more sophisticated offensive measures to confirm the reasonable offensive strength of this unit as well. They are strong on third down conversions, strong on rushing yards per attempt, and pretty efficient as well. New Orleans has been in a class of their own this year, but Baltimore is unquestionably in the small group of teams in the next tier.
Defense - For so long we have been used to seeing the Ravens have a potent, almost flawless defense. The key pieces are getting older, though, so it has become fashionable to assume that this defense is getting much worse than it used to be. That's not entirely true. They aren't the top defense in the league by any means, but they are far from terrible, either. Two of my favorite measures of a defense are rushing yards per attempt, and third down percentage. The Ravens are fine in both regards - sixth in the former, and ninth in the latter. They are also fifth in interceptions. There are some concerns - notably that they are allowing too many yards per passing attempt. Still, this is definitely a defense that wouldn't be out of place in the playoffs.
Schedule - This is where things get tricky. There are a lot of teams out there who have an easier schedule than Baltimore does. They have had two easy games so far - Kansas City and Cleveland - and they have looked very solid in both of them. They've also had four very tough games - at home against Cincinnati, and at San Diego, New England, and Minnesota. They have only won one of those games, but they have only lost the three games by an average of four points, and the last two have been decided in the closing seconds. In other words, Baltimore hasn't been winning against the good teams they have played, but they haven't been terrible, either. Unfortunately, the schedule doesn't get any easier from here on. They have games against Cleveland, Detroit, and Oakland that they should win. The remaining seven games, though, are all against teams that stand a very good shot at making the playoffs. The good news is that four of those seven games are at home.
So, what does that all mean? Well, we really can't tell anything about the Ravens yet. They have lost more games than is ideal, but they have been very competitive in every game, they are performing reasonably well on either side of the ball, and aren't going to be outclassed going down the stretch by any team they meet. We know that they are likely to have at least six wins because of weak opponents. This could easily be an eight-win team, or it is still possible that they win 11 or 12. All we know for sure is that they have yet to give us a real reason to panic, or to believe that they are anything other than a solid, tough to beat team.
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