It is easy to say that the Baltimore Ravens are the favorite. It would also be the right thing to say.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are always the wild card in the AFC. Big Ben is expected to come up big in a tight situation and falls short, sometimes. Things like these tend to derail the Steelers from being the favorite in the AFC, but with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots falling to the feet of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, the dream seems far more likely for the Baltimore Ravens.
Sure, they lost to a Philadelphia Eagles franchise just a season removed from struggling as the NFL’s Dream Team. The game was in hand until the Ravens made some key mistakes and lost it by abandoning the ground-and-pound game and allowing Flacco to take over in key short-yardage situations.
It was an error that the Baltimore Ravens have surely reevaluated and hopefully will not repeat. Would Big Ben have done differently? Probably not.
The difference is that neither Isaac Redman nor Rashard Mendenhall (who was inactive Week 2 against the New York Jets) are on the same level as Ray Rice and the Ravens should not ignore his power running, or Vonta Leach’s, in those short-yard moments.
Using Rice as a high-priced decoy is not exactly the role that works for Baltimore. Even with all of those points combined into an argument against the Ravens, the Steelers have a lot of question marks surrounding their franchise and their run this season to the 2013 Super Bowl.
Before examining why the Ravens are one step ahead of the Steelers in the race to Super Bowl XLVII, the reason why Pitt and Baltimore are at the top of the conference has to be exposed.
In Week 2, nine of the conference’s 15 NFL franchise experienced losses: Ravens, Jets, Patriots, Browns, Jaguars, Titans, Broncos, Raiders and Chiefs. Of those nine franchises, only about two truly have a shot at the Super Bowl game – the Ravens and the Patriots.
Unfortunately for New England, they are losing Aaron Hernandez to a left ankle injury he sustained during the loss to the Arizona Cardinals Monday afternoon. His x-rays returned negative results, but the Patriots’ most versatile offensive player is expected to miss at least two weeks. For a player that has been played as the second WR, a traditional TE and even touches out of the backfield, the Patriots are going to miss him on the field and Kellen Winslow is not going to be a complete replacement.
So what now?
Winslow could be thrust into the same position that Chad Johnson was when he joined the Patriots last season. Without having stable knowledge of the game plan and without the ability to jump right in and learn the sophisticated plays immediately, Winslow could be just as ineffective and that leaves New England’s offense mirroring the same disheveled appearance it did against Arizona.
New England is not completely out of the race, but right now the defensive edge and offensive tools that both the Ravens and the Steelers have, even with some key injuries, is a better bet than leaning on Stephen Gostkowski.
The Ravens and the Steelers are incredibly similar in makeup, but in the same breath are massively separate in attack. Often times, Baltimore’s offense will rely on their defense to bail them out. It’s a defense that even without Terrell Suggs is still one of the top ten in the league, maybe even the top five.
Watching the Ravens against the Philadelphia Eagles could have provided alarm. The pass pressure, or lack thereof, was shocking as was the obvious lapse of defense on Philly TE Brent Celek. Let’s not over hype his performance though. The more concerning thing about the game was Michael Vick’s game-winning touchdown with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens had a lot of trouble locking the mobile quarterback down when he would extend plays with his feet and move the chains. It’s nothing that the Ravens’ personnel cannot adjust to. All of those issues are fixable and they still have an improving offense on their hands.
Yes, the play-calling was questionable to say the least as Flacco seemingly ignored Ray Rice on those short yardage situations. The no-huddle offense that proved so lethal in the first week did not work this time and the offense should have rode more on their workhorse.
These are fixable and the Ravens’ potential when they play at their best trumps Pittsburgh who are still without James Harrison and Troy Polamalu (both questionable for Week 3).
Big Ben is still an elite quarterback who is hard to get on the ground and without Darrelle Revis on the field for the Jets, looked almost flawless. Still, with the offensive potency of each offense matched up, the defense is what ultimately determines which franchise comes out on top.
The Ravens are just a more stable squad than the Steelers, therefore they have the upper hand in the race. Things could always change, but if your prediction hinges on the Ravens vs. an NFC opponent in the Super Bowl, then you’re on the right track.