AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore TV: CBS

A cloudy AFC playoff picture will start to get clearer Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens play host to the San Diego Chargers.

With both teams sitting at 7-4, the winner not only gets a one-game edge on the other but it gains what could be a valuable head-to-head tiebreaker by season's end.

Each team has appeared to right their season recently. The Chargers have won two straight games after losing three consecutive games, and the Ravens have won back-to-back games after dropping a couple of road division games.

ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at this key AFC matchup:

Hensley: The Ravens have been getting a tremendous pass rush with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Do you think Philip Rivers will get enough time to exploit a shaky Ravens' secondary downfield?

Williams: Interesting question. The Chargers have faced some of the top edge rushers in the league, including Denver's Von Miller, Miami's Cameron Wake and Kansas City's Justin Houston, with mixed results. When Rivers is at his best, he's using the no-huddle, a hard count and the short passing game to keep opposing defensive fronts off balance. The Chargers certainly have the weapons to create explosive plays, with guys such as Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates. However, tackles King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker will have to hold up on the edge for Rivers to push the ball down the field. San Diego should execute good enough at the line of scrimmage to create those opportunities.

The challenge for the Chargers' defense is slowing down Justin Forsett, who had been used mostly as a rotational back in his NFL career. But this season as an every-down back, he’s third in the NFL in rushing with 903 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. What are the reasons for his breakthrough season?

Hensley: It's partly the system, and partly Forsett's drive to succeed. Forsett needs 97 yards to become the eighth 1,000-yard rusher during Gary Kubiak's tenure (offensive coordinator in Denver and Baltimore and head coach in Houston). So, Kubiak's running scheme has been a major factor in Forsett's career year. It should be pointed out that Forsett averaged a career-high 5.9 yards per carry in 2012, when he last worked in Kubiak's offense. Still, you can't discount Forsett's relentlessness. All he's wanted in his seven-year career is an opportunity, and he's taken full advantage of it. Backup Bernard Pierce is only averaging 3.6 yards per carry, so it's obviously a little more than Kubiak's system. Forsett has good vision to find the lanes and has surprising power to break tackles to get through the line of scrimmage. He's the Ravens' most valuable player at this point.

The Chargers have given up 120.6 yards rushing per game since Week 7. What's been the biggest problem with the Chargers' run defense recently?

Williams: Poor tackling and being stout at the point of attack have been the main culprits for San Diego in consistently stopping the run. However, the Chargers have been much better in the past two games, holding the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams to an average of 89 rushing yards a contest. The Chargers benefitted from the return of linebackers Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu and Manti Te'o from injuries after the bye week, creating a deeper rotation that keeps the defensive front seven fresh.

Staying with the Ravens' offense, the Chargers showed some interest in wide receiver Steve Smith during the offseason, but he ultimately chose Baltimore. What has Smith added to Baltimore's offense?

Hensley: Smith has brought a good pair of hands and a nasty attitude to the offense. From the first practices in the spring, you could tell that Joe Flacco immediately trusted Smith because of his ability to catch the ball. He may not run perfect routes, but he comes down with the ball, which was a problem last year for the Ravens' receivers. Smith's hands and concentration were the reason why he came down with that 15-yard touchdown Monday when getting held and falling backward. Smith also has given the Ravens an edge on an offense that is composed of mostly laid-back players. Flacco made the point it's important to get Smith involved early because he's such an emotional spark to the team. Smith pushes the limit, though. He could've easily drawn a penalty with his scuffle on Monday.

As the Ravens are working on a short week because of that Monday night game, the Chargers are making the long trip cross country to play a 1 p.m. game. How much an impact will this make on Sunday's game?

Williams: It depends. The Chargers were crushed by the Miami Dolphins in Week 9, 37-0 at Miami. But they also defeated the Buffalo Bills 22-10 in a Week 3 contest in Buffalo. Both games were 1 p.m. starts. The Chargers usually travel on Friday when playing on the East Coast to better adjust to the time change. San Diego has a veteran team that's been in this situation before, so I would not expect the game time to have an effect on the team's preparation or performance on Sunday.

At 7-4, Baltimore is in one of the most competitive divisions in the AFC North. What do the Ravens have to do in order to reach the postseason?

Hensley: Not to sound like a cliche, but the Ravens have to take care of their business. The Ravens have one division game remaining, and that's the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns. With the other AFC North teams playing each other (the Bengals and Steelers play twice in the final four weeks), they'll begin to knock each other off. All the Ravens can do is keep stacking wins and see which AFC North team emerges from the head-to-head games. The other playoff issue for the Ravens is their 3-4 conference record, which can be an important tiebreaker. The Ravens need to beat the likes of the Chargers and the Dolphins (the Ravens' Week 14 opponent) to improve their AFC mark as well as beat two of the teams competing for an AFC wild-card spot.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs missed Wednesday's practice with a foot injury.

Suggs had been limited in recent weeks with a neck injury, so this is a new injury. He played 84 percent of the snaps Monday night, which is his normal workload.

It would be surprising to see Suggs miss Sunday's game after seeing him sprint to his media session with reporters. Suggs has also only missed 10 games to injury in his 12-year career.

Slot receiver Michael Campanaro practiced for the first time since injuring his hamstring Oct. 26 at Cincinnati. He was limited along with linebacker Pernell McPhee (shoulder).

Reserve offensive lineman Jah Reid had full participation, less than a month after breaking his hand.
Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett is the frontrunner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and he is the most valuable player on the team.

Here is something else to consider: Forsett for the Pro Bowl.

[+] EnlargeRavens
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsEclipsing 95 yards or more rushing in four games this season, Ravens RB Justin Forsett has at least earned his way into Pro Bowl consideration.
As strange as this might have sounded at the start of the season, the long-time journeyman deserves to be mentioned with the likes of DeMarco Murray, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles. Only six total running backs (there is no AFC/NFC distinction anymore), and it would be a mistake not to include Forsett.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Forsett leads all NFL running backs in yards per carry with 5.8. To put this in perspective, the league average per rush this season is 4.1.
  • He is the league's third-leading rusher with 903 yards. Only Murray and Le'Veon Bell have gained more, but each has at least 40 more carries than Forsett this season.
  • Forsett is one of the NFL's top playmakers with a league-high 12 runs over 20 yards. No one else has more than 10.
  • To emphasize the point of being valuable, Forsett has averaged 125 yards rushing in the Ravens' last four wins. In beating Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Tennessee and New Orleans, Forsett has produced 111, 95, 112 and 182 yards rushing.

The Pro Bowl has long become a popularity contest (one-third of the voting comes from fans), and Forsett is hurt by the fact he isn't a household name and doesn't have a national commercial. If you're selecting on importance as well as numbers, he should be a slam dunk to hear his name called when Pro Bowl players are announced on Dec. 23.

Simply put, the Ravens wouldn't be a serious playoff contender without Forsett. Ray Rice is gone. Bernard Pierce is too injury prone to be trusted. And rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro doesn't have the confidence of the coaching staff after fumbling in Pittsburgh. It's difficult to believe the Ravens would be a half game out of first place in the AFC North without Forsett breaking long runs and scoring critical touchdowns in the red zone.

The argument against Forsett is he's a product of the system. You'll hear that even Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns and Steve Slaton all gained over 1,000 yards rushing in Gary Kubiak's offense. That's valid, but you can't discount Forsett's vision, power and explosiveness. Pierce is averaging 3.6 yards per carry in the same offense and behind the same offensive line.

Forsett is starting to gain recognition after being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week in his past two games. The football world got a glimpse of what he's been doing all season when he produced a career-high 182 yards rushing on "Monday Night Football."

Whether that gains enough national respect for a Pro Bowl invitation remains to be seen. But Forsett has done everything he can to earn one.

QB Snapshot: Joe Flacco

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
A quick observation of quarterback Joe Flacco and how he played in the Baltimore Ravens' 34-27 win in Week 12:

 The biggest improvement in Flacco was how he handled the blitz. In struggling the past three games against increased pressure, he said the Ravens had to make teams pay to make them stop blitzing. Flacco should expect to see a good amount of pressure Sunday against the aggressive San Diego Chargers. Quarterbacks have a 72.0 passer rating against the Chargers' blitz, which is fifth worst in the NFL.

Flacco certainly did that on "Monday Night Football," where he completed 13 of 17 attempts against the New Orleans Saints' blitz. His 222 yards passing against added pressure Monday night were the most of his seven-year NFL career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Flacco set the tone early, hitting wide receiver Steve Smith for the first touchdown of the game despite staring down an unblocked Saints pass-rusher.

In the games leading up to last week's bye, Flacco was unsettled in the pocket and didn't follow through on his throws when the pass rush collapsed around him. On Monday, he was poised for most of the game and took some big hits before releasing the ball downfield.

Ravens' report card at the Saints

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
Grading the Baltimore Ravens in their 34-27 win at the New Orleans Saints:

Quarterback: Joe Flacco showed poise against the blitz and proved quite efficient in extending drives. Six of his seven completions on third downs led to first downs. Flacco stretched the field (his 40-yard strike to Steve Smith was perfect) and hit Torrey Smith in stride on underneath routes. Yes, he should've been picked off linebacker David Hawthorne, and it could've been returned for a touchdown. But that was a small smudge on an otherwise strong outing. Grade: B-plus.

Running backs: Justin Forsett broke a 38-yard run on the Ravens' first play of the game and finished of the Saints with a 20-yard touchdown run with 2:53 left in the game. His 182 yards rushing were 52 more than he had ever gained in his previous 97 career games. He ran hard in between the tackles and showed decisiveness in hitting the openings, which led to runs of 20, 24, 35 and 38 yards. Even backup Bernard Pierce had a 26-yard run, his longest one in 19 games. The only negative was fullback Kyle Juszczyk's fumble at the Saints' 1-yard line. Grade: A-minus.

Wide receivers/tight ends: For one of the few times this season, the Ravens were able to get the ball to Steve Smith and Torrey Smith in the same game. They combined for 187 yards receiving. Steve Smith made a fantastic touchdown grab while falling back and getting interfered with to cap the Ravens' opening drive. Torrey Smith was physical in going over the middle to make the intermediate catches. Marlon Brown converted a third down-and-12 with a 14-yard catch. Grade: A.

Offensive line: The right side was dominant with guard Marshal Yanda getting to the second level and tackle Rick Wagner sealing off the backside. Forsett gained 104 yards on the right side and averaged 10.4 yards per carry behind Yanda and Wagner. Left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Jeremy Zuttah also had solid games. Left tackle Eugene Monroe hasn't been the same since he returned from injury, and he was the team's worst lineman Monday. He allowed too much pressure on Flacco's blind side. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive line: The Ravens forced the Saints to stop running the ball, especially in between the tackles. Haloti Ngata set the tone when he stuffed running back Mark Ingram on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line to end the opening drive. Nose tackle Brandon Williams made four tackles and forced a fumble. Chris Canty somehow convinced the officials that Saints left tackle Terron Armstead moved when he didn't, and that pushed back the Saints to the 6-yard line. Grade: B-plus.

Linebackers: All four sacks came from the Ravens' linebackers. Elvis Dumervil had his sixth multi-sack game of the season, and Terrell Suggs cracked 100 sacks for his career. C.J. Mosley led the Ravens with nine tackles and made his first career sack. Pernell McPhee topped the Ravens with three quarterback hits. Courtney Upshaw made a couple of outstanding open-field tackles. Grade: A.

Secondary: Will Hill made the play of the game with a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. He negated tight end Jimmy Graham with his physical play. The rest of the secondary was extremely shaky. The Ravens gave up five passes over 20 yards, and there were players in position to make plays. Cornerback Danny Gorrer had an interception ripped out of his hands along the sideline, and rookie safety Terrence Brooks gave up a long touchdown because he didn't attack the ball. Lardarius Webb saved a touchdown with an illegal horse-collar tackle, which is important to point out because the Ravens kept the Saints out of the end zone. Grade: C-minus.

Special teams: Sam Koch changed field position with a career-high 59.5-yard net average. Justin Tucker hit a clutch 55-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Jacoby Jones made a couple of bad decisions when fielding kicks. Kamar Aiken caught the onside kick to end the game. Grade: B-plus.
The Baltimore Ravens' 34-27 win at the New Orleans Saints made NFL history for the AFC North.

This marks the first time that every team in a division is at least three games above .500, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The first-place Cincinnati Bengals are 7-3-1, and the rest of the division (Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns) is a half-game back at 7-4.

Of course, there were many years when the NFL was separated into divisions with five teams. The current setup of four teams in each division didn't start until 2002.

Still, it is impressive that every team has seven wins, even if it's the result of beating up on two bad divisions (AFC South and NFC South). In every other division, the last-place team is at least three games below .500. That's why the Ravens felt so much pressure to win at the Superdome.

"You're going to have to win a lot of games to win the division," coach John Harbaugh said. "You're going to have to win a lot of games to make the playoffs in our conference. I's just a fact. You're going to need every win you can get."

The last time AFC North teams received both wild-card spots was 2011. That's when the Ravens won the division and the Steelers and Bengals earned wild-card berths.
The Baltimore Ravens proved they can handle a high-pressure situation when they beat the New Orleans Saints, 34-27, on Monday night.

The Ravens won on the road after the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns had done so the day before, and they handed the Saints their first prime-time loss in the Superdome since 2009.

The reward? The Ravens are in control of their playoff destiny.

Even though the Ravens (7-4) are currently No. 7 in the AFC's six-team playoff field, they can improve their conference record as well as their head-to-head tiebreakers by taking care of their remaining games.

The weakest part of the Ravens resume' is their record in the AFC. After running their record to 4-0 against the NFC South on Monday night, the Ravens are 3-4 against conference opponents.

This is why the Ravens' next two games -- home against the San Diego Chargers (7-4) and at the Miami Dolphins (6-5) -- are so important. The Ravens can boost their conference record as well as win head-to-head matchups against two teams vying for wild-card spots.

In fact, the Ravens would move into one of the top six spots in the AFC by beating the Chargers on Sunday. It doesn't matter how the rest of the teams fare.

The Ravens are still in the running for the AFC North title as well. They are a half-game back of the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (7-3-1).

Here is the Ravens' remaining schedule: home against the Chargers, at the Dolphins, home against the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10), at the Houston Texans (5-6) and home against the Cleveland Browns (7-4).
NEW ORLEANS -- Arthur Brown is back to being inactive again.

Brown was scratched for Monday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints after playing the past two games on special teams. He didn't make a tackle.

The Ravens moved up in the second round of the 2013 draft to select Brown. He played 14 games last season and was part of the Ravens' nickel package.

By scratching Brown, the Ravens were able to suit up safety Brynden Trawick.

Here are the Ravens' inactives: NT Terrence Cody, WR Michael Campanaro, LB Arthur Brown, DE DeAngelo Tyson, C Gino Gradkowski, CB Rashaan Melvin and OT Jah Reid.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens cornerback Asa Jackson practiced for the first time since injuring his toe in October, and coach John Harbaugh is hopeful that Jackson will be ready to play in the team's Dec. 7 game at Miami.

Jackson had started four games before he severely sprained his toe in a loss at Indianapolis in Week 5. He was put on the short-term injured reserve list, and this week was the first time he was eligible to return to practice.

With Jackson practicing Friday, it starts a 21-day window when the Ravens must decide to activate him to the 53-man roster or shut him down for the season. Harbaugh said it was an encouraging sign.

"It's good to see him out there," Harbaugh said. "It's good to know he's now basically been activated to prepare."

Getting back Jackson would be a boost for a Ravens secondary that lost its best cornerback, Jimmy Smith, for the season. But Jackson is considered the Ravens' third-worst player on defense this season, according to Pro Football Focus. In five games, he allowed 22 catches and missed five tackles.

"I'm not sure how he looked [Friday]. We didn't have him in to many of the main drills today," Harbaugh said. "So I'll have to watch the tape and talk to the some of the guys that worked with him in more of the individual drills."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't criticize the NFL's discipline of Chase Coffman after the Tennessee Titans' tight end was fined $30,000 for leveling a Ravens assistant coach.

"It's really difficult to have a response to the level of punishment," Harbaugh said Monday. "I know the league, they have protocols and they have standards and histories and things like that they look really hard at. We don't really ever question that part of it. That's in their purview."

This doesn't come as a surprise. It does Harbaugh no good to take a shot at the NFL at this point. The league isn't going to change its punishment based on Harbaugh creating headlines. In fact, he could be subject to a fine from the NFL if he criticized the league. So, it was probably a smart financial move for Harbaugh to take the same "let's move forward" stance from last year, when Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin interfered with Jacoby Jones on a kickoff return.

But Harbaugh has to be seething about what transpired. One of his assistants was blindsided by a 6-foot-6, 250-pound player. Remember it was four years ago when Harbaugh was fined $15,000 for making contact with a line judge in the chest while demonstrating a hit on a quarterback. And Coffman received just $15,000 more for knocking a defenseless coach to the ground. There's just not a level playing field in the league's fines system.

"I was told that it wasn't intentional, so I'll take them at their word on that and we'll move forward," Harbaugh said.
Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was asked how he felt a little over a year removed from suffering a mini-stroke.

"I think I’m all right. Do I look all right?," Kubiak responded. "This league will give you some health issues."

It was last Nov. 3 when Kubiak collapsed on the field as the head coach of the Houston Texans. He missed one game and returned to work eight days later on a modified schedule.

Now, more than halfway into his season as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Kubiak looks like he's had some long days but he said he feels fine.

"It’s Week 10 in the NFL. I think everybody is a little tired right now," Kubiak said. "We have the bye week this week, so I know I’m looking forward to it just like everybody else, getting a little rest and getting fresh for these last six weeks. But I’ve really enjoyed myself."

Even though the Ravens haven't been as productive lately in moving the ball, the offense ranks No. 11 in total yards and No. 8 in scoring (26.1). This is a major upgrade from last season, when the Ravens were No. 29 in yards and No. 25 in points scored.

"I’ve been very challenged, trying to put in a new offense and do it really quickly," Kubiak said. "I told the players [on Monday], I know I’m asking a lot of them and a lot of the coaches for the first time around, but I’m in a hurry to get there, and I know they are, too. But I’ve enjoyed myself. I’m really looking forward to this run we have coming. [We have] some big games to play in and we need to play well.”
The surprising season continued for Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett, who was named AFC offensive player of the week on Wednesday.

Forsett gained 112 yards rushing -- the most in the AFC in Week 10 -- and scored two touchdowns in the Ravens' 21-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans. He tied the game with a 9-yard run in the second quarter and put the Ravens ahead with an 11-yard burst in the third quarter.

The journeyman running back also set a career-high for rushing yards in a season with 721 yards, which ranks No. 4 in the NFL.

"When you watch him on tape, he has always been a playmaker, and now he’s getting an opportunity to prove that," coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s doing a great job with it.”

Forsett is the third Ravens player to win a weekly player of the week award, joining kicker Justin Tucker (Week 3 against Cleveland) and quarterback Joe Flacco (Week 6 against Tampa Bay). He is the first Ravens running back to earn this honor since the end of the 2012 season, when Ray Rice won the award.
The first successful replay challenge this season by Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh came at a critical time in Sunday's 21-7 win against the Tennessee Titans.

John Harbaugh
With the game tied at 7 in the second quarter, Harbaugh threw the red flag when the officials ruled that Titans tight end Delanie Walker had made a catch before rookie safety Terrence Brooks' hard hit.

If Harbaugh hadn't challenged, the Titans would've had a first down at their own 33-yard line (following the personal foul on Leon Washington). Instead, the Titans had to punt the ball.

Harbaugh credited Matt Weiss, the defensive quality control coach and linebackers assistant who is also his right-hand man in terms of studying the rules and challenges.

"I thought he did a great job of seeing that [play]," Harbaugh said. "He saw the bobble first on the first step, which gave us a chance to understand that it wasn’t a completed catch. Once we saw that, it was clear cut that it was going to be overturned. You never know, obviously, but we felt like that was pretty certainly going to be overturned."

Harbaugh had been unsuccessful on his first four challenges of the season, including the spot on Ben Roethlisberger's third-and-one quarterback sneak in Pittsburgh the previous week.

This had been Harbaugh's roughest season with replay challenges. In his first six seasons as the Ravens coach, he had challenged an NFL-best 28 plays reversed on a league-high 57 challenges. Last season, seven of his NFL-high 12 challenges were overturned in the Ravens' favor. That 58 percent success rate ranked 14th in the NFL.
There are plenty of instances in the first 10 weeks of the season that still bother the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens were swept by the Cincinnati Bengals. They were routed by the Pittsburgh Steelers on national television. They failed to show up offensively in Indianapolis, down to the final dropped pass by Torrey Smith.

"We realize that we would like to be a lot better, but we’re just going to take it," linebacker Terrell Suggs said as the Ravens begin their bye week. "After 10 games, we’ve won six of them. We’ve lost four games to four teams with winning records. There’s a lot to be said about that."

Suggs is exactly right. There is something to be said about a team taking care of business. That's the reason why the Ravens (6-4) are in the thick of the AFC North race.

The Ravens are a half game out of first place in the division because they've beaten the lesser teams and the other teams have not.
  • The Cleveland Browns (6-3) lost to the last-place Jacksonville Jaguars by 18 points. It's the only win for the Jaguars this season.
  • The Bengals (5-3-1) tied the Carolina Panthers at home on Oct. 12. That's the last time the Panthers (3-6-1) didn't lose.
  • The Steelers (6-4) lost at home to Tampa Bay and at the New York Jets. The Buccaneers and Jets are a combined 1-16 against the rest of the league.

The combined record of the teams who have beaten the Ravens is 22-13-2 (.621). That's been an enduring trend under coach John Harbaugh -- beat the teams you're supposed to beat. Since Harbaugh took over as Ravens coach in 2008, the Ravens are 34-8 (.809) against teams with losing records, including Sunday's 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans. The only coach with a better mark since 2008 is the Patriots' Bill Belichick, who is 37-7 (.840).

Of the Ravens' six remaining games, half are currently against teams with losing records: New Orleans Saints (4-5), Jaguars (1-9) and Houston Texans (4-5). The Ravens know they are going to need every win possible in the only division in football where every team has a winning record.

"I feel the same way I felt about it when the season opened -- it's the best division in football," Harbaugh said. "It's going to be a dogfight right to the end. We just need to do our part. We understand how good the other three teams are in our division and how well they're going to play down the stretch. That should just serve further notice to us in terms of how well we need to play."