The Baltimore Ravens are one game from the midway point of their season, but they are already in a “must-win” situation.
When they play the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night in a nationally televised game, they must win to keep part of the fan base from going astray. But more importantly, a win would keep them within striking distance of the AFC North-rival Pittsburgh Steelers and any slim NFL playoff hopes alive.
If they lose, discussions about possible draft positions might as well begin.
“Playing on a short week is more mental than physical,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “But we know where we’re at. We know we have to start winning. We have to start some sort of winning streak.”
It has to start against Miami. Even though the Ravens (3-4) have lost two straight games, if they beat the Dolphins, they would have nine days off before they play at Tennessee and then have a bye week. That would give them substantial healing time and, if they beat the Titans, too, a wave of positive emotion before heading to Green Bay on Nov. 19.
A loss could drop them as many as three games behind Pittsburgh, which will visit the 3-3 Detroit Lions on Sunday. That deficit would be almost insurmountable. To get to the magic number of 10 wins, the Ravens would have to win seven of their final eight games.
After getting beaten by the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the Ravens were eager to play again even as soon as Thursday night.
“In the years that I’ve been blessed to be here we have done pretty well on Thursday nights, so it’s a challenge that we look forward to,” kicker Justin Tucker said. “I think it will be a great atmosphere, it will be fun, like it always is. I think you ask anybody in here, we are chomping at the bit to play another game, just to get back in the win column.”
Crowd turnout may be key: It will be interesting to see the crowd turnout at M&T Bank Stadium. A portion off the fan base still has ill feelings about some Ravens taking a knee during the national anthem before a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on Sept. 24.
Fans also can’t be happy that the team didn’t score an offensive touchdown in nearly 11 full quarters before reaching the end zone on the last play of the game against the Vikings. Combine that with failing to go to the playoffs three of the past four seasons, and the Ravens’ popularity is fading.
But a win would give everyone some hope. And the Ravens are optimistic.
“What do you think?” safety Eric Weddle said when asked about the team’s confidence. “One hundred percent. I think we are going to win every game, so I don’t really understand a question like that. Do you want me to say we are going to lose next week?
“I think we are going to win every game until the season is done and I can’t play any more games. If anyone else says otherwise, they probably shouldn’t be on the team.”
Miami has won three straight: Miami (4-2) is somewhat similar statistically to the Ravens, though the Dolphins have won three straight, against the Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets.
The Dolphins' offense is averaging just 15.3 points, 261.8 total yards, 180.2 passing yards and 81.7 rushing yards a game compared with the Ravens' 18.3 points, 277.6 total yards, 157.4 passing yards and 120.1 rushing yards.
The teams have similar defensive statistics as well, but the Dolphins are allowing 225.8 passing yards compared with 82.3 rushing. So if the Ravens can protect quarterback Joe Flacco and get wide receivers Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin healthy, they might be able to hit some big passes downfield.
Miami will be without starting quarterback Jay Cutler, who reportedly suffered cracked ribs against the Jets on Sunday. That would seem to be an advantage for the Ravens, but they have lost to Chicago Bears rookie Mitchell Trubisky and Minnesota Vikings journeyman Case Keenum in the past two weeks.
Maybe that changes if Matt Moore starts for Miami. It had better because the Ravens are running out of time.
They must win now.