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NFL Preview - Baltimore (8-7) at Oakland (5-10)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Penalties and missed opportunities cost the Baltimore Ravens a chance at securing a playoff berth last weekend. The team will try to punch its ticket to the playoffs on the NFL's final regular-season weekend this Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum, where they'll take on a Raiders club that will try to end its campaign with its highest win total in seven years.
Thanks to 113 yards in penalties, including two that wiped out potential touchdowns, the Ravens dropped a 23-20 decision to the Steelers in Pittsburgh last Sunday. That loss proved costly, as Baltimore would have clinched its second straight playoff berth because of losses by Denver and Jacksonville.
The Ravens still control their own destiny, however, as they simply need to win this matchup to claim one of the AFC's two Wild Card spots. However, as one of five 8-7 teams in the hunt, they can not get in with a loss.
Baltimore, which is just 2-5 on the road, will look to rebound after last weekend's setback that saw them lose on the Steelers' Jeff Reed's 38-yard field goal with 5:25 to play. The Ravens ensuing drive ended on a fourth-down fumble, but it did look like they were going to get the ball back on an interception throw by Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. True to form, though, the turnover was erased on an illegal contract penalty by cornerback Frank Walker.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 166 yards and found Todd Heap twice in the end zone, giving the tight end his second straight two-touchdown game. Running back Ray Rice ended with 141 yards rushing, while Baltimore's defense held Pittsburgh to just 48 yards on the ground.
That defensive unit could be in for a boost this Sunday, as safety Ed Reed is likely to return from hip and groin issues that have held him out of the last four games.
The Ravens can't afford to take the 5-10 Raiders lightly, as four of Oakland's five wins this year have come versus teams either in the playoffs or still alive in the hunt. That includes a pair of division leaders in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, as well as the Steelers and Broncos.
Oakland is coming off last weekend's 23-9 setback to Cleveland, but it had won three of five heading into that game. The Raiders' offense totaled just nine points despite 389 yards of offense, thanks to 126 yards worth of penalties and three interceptions thrown by quarterback Charlie Frye. Frye is expected to start in this game after returning last weekend from a concussion suffered in the team's previous contest.
In addition to all of the penalties, the undisciplined Raiders also saw two players ejected in the game. Cornerback Stanford Routt was tossed after an unnecessary roughness call in the first half, while tight end Tony Stewart took an early exit for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for making contact with an official.
The lone highlight for the Raiders versus the Browns was the 61-yard field goal nailed by kicker Sebastian Janikowski, the fourth longest in NFL history behind 63-yard boots by Tom Dempsey (1970) and Jason Elam (1998) and a 62-yard kick by Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant in 2006.
Last weekend's loss assured Oakland that it will finish the 2009 season without having won consecutive games, though a win in this one would prevent a second straight 5-11 finish and give the Raiders' their highest season victory total since they went 11-5 in 2002 and won the AFC West. That also marked the last time Oakland made the playoffs.
The Ravens lead the all-time regular season series with the Raiders, 4-1, including a 29-10 win when Oakland visited Baltimore last season. The Raiders are 0-2 in the series since a 20-12 win for the Silver and Black in 2003, the Ravens' only regular season trip to Oakland.
The teams also met once in the postseason, with the Ravens notching a 16-3 road victory in the 2000 AFC Championship, en route to a Super Bowl title.
The Ravens' John Harbaugh is 1-0 against both the Raiders and head coach Tom Cable.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
If the Ravens are to make the postseason, Rice (1269 rushing yards, 74 receptions, 8 total TD) will be the biggest reason why. Enjoying a breakout season, the back is the main cog of Baltimore's seventh-ranked ground attack (130.7 yards per game) and needs just 96 rushing yards to surpass Jamal Lewis for the second-most over a single season in Ravens history. He is also just 48 yards from scrimmage away of becoming the second Raven to reach 2,000 in a season. Rice has seven of Baltimore's 19 rushing touchdowns this year, with Willis McGahee adding another nine. However, with Rice and Flacco (3511 passing yards, 21 TD, 12 INT), Baltimore is just 22 points shy of surpassing the club record of 391 set during the 2003 season. Wide receiver Derrick Mason (72 receptions, 1005 receiving yards, 7 TD) will look to rebound this weekend, as he made seven catches for 77 yards against the Steelers but also dropped a sure touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 20-20. Heap (51 receptions, 6 TD) totaled 37 yards receiving last weekend. Flacco was sacked four times versus the Steelers, so the Ravens hope tackle Jared Gaither can return from a foot injury that has held him out of the last three games.
Rice and Flacco may have a field day this Sunday versus an Oakland defense that ranks 24th in points allowed (23.9 per game), 27th in total defense (364.1 yards per game) and 29th versus the run (149.9 yards per game). The Raiders have also allowed an NFL high-tying 21 rushing touchdowns while posting just eight interceptions, tied for the fewest in the league. Oakland struggled last weekend versus Cleveland running back Jerome Harrison, who posted 148 yards and a score on 39 carries, though he did lose a fumble that was forced by linebacker Kirk Morrison (123 tackles, 1 sack) and recovered by defensive end Greg Ellis (29 tackles, 7 sacks). Oakland's leading tackler, Morrison had a game-high 14 stops last weekend along with a sack, while safety Tyvon Branch (121 tackles, 1 sack) notched eight tackles. Defensive tackle Gerard Warren (35 tackles, 2 sacks) also posted a sack, but is questionable for this week because of a shoulder issue. Like most teams, Flacco will likely throw away from corner Nnamdi Asomugha (34 tackles), who has been able to grab only one pick this season. In addition to Ellis and fellow end Richard Seymour (41 tackles, 4 sacks), linebacker Trevor Scott (37 tackles, 6 sacks) is counted on for quarterback pressure.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland's offense hasn't been able to produce much this season, as it ranks 31st in points (12.3), yards (262.2) and passing yards (152.2) per game. With Bruce Gradkowski (1007 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) out with a knee injury and JaMarcus Russell (1185 passing yards, 3 TD, 10 INT) on the bench due to ineffectiveness, Frye is getting the chance to close out the season under center. However, he was less than stellar a week ago. Tight end Zach Miller (59 receptions, 2 TD) was his top target, making a career-high nine catches for 110 yards. Running back Michael Bush (571 rushing yards, 3 TD) led the ground game with 52 yards on 10 runs, while Darren McFadden (491 rushing yards, 3 TD) had seven carries for 23 yards in addition to four receptions for 55 yards. Wide receiver Chaz Schilens (21 receptions, 2 TD) pitched in with four catches for 64 yards. Rookie wideout Louis Murphy (28 receptions, 4 TD) had two catches for 22 yards, but first-round draft choice Darrius Heyward-Bey (9 receptions, 1 TD) missed his fourth game in a row due to a foot injury. Oakland has scored an NFL-low 16 touchdowns this year and must score 16 points in this one to avoid posting fewer than 200 for the second time in four seasons.
The Raiders aren't likely to pad their offensive stats versus the Ravens. Baltimore is second in the NFL in scoring defense (16.5 ppg), third in total defense (298.9 ypg) and ranks sixth against both the pass (202.8 ypg) and run (96.1 ypg). Though he did score a touchdown, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall was Pittsburgh's top run producer last weekend with only 36 yards on 17 carries, a 2.1 average per attempt. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, was sacked four times and picked off once. Defensive end Haloti Ngata (34 tackles, 1.5 sacks). nose tackle Kelly Gregg (57 tackles, 2 sacks) and linebacker Antwan Barnes (12 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) all had a full sack, while cornerback Domonique Foxworth (48 tackles, 4 INT) had the interception, giving him three over the last two weeks. Foxworth should get some help this weekend with the return of Reed (45 tackles, 3 INT). Cornerback Chris Carr (38 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) led Baltimore with nine tackles last weekend and also forced a fumble that was picked up by linebacker Ray Lewis (121 tackles, 3 sacks). Safety Dawan Landry (81 tackles, 4 INT) and Walker (16 tackles, 1 INT) both ended with seven tackles.
If your squad is dependent on the Raiders, then you likely aren't in the hunt for a fantasy championship. Not a single player on the Oakland roster outside of Miller deserves consideration, and owners who took chances on McFadden and Heyward-Bey are probably still fuming. Oakland's defense belongs only on the waiver wire, while Janikowski showed last weekend he has the leg to be an impact kicker, but there is always a question on how many opportunities he will get.
The Ravens, on the other hand, should post some great fantasy stats this weekend. Get Rice, Flacco, Mason and Heap into lineups right away, and they should be joined by the defense and kicker Billy Cundiff. Rice has been a fantasy MVP this year, especially in points-per-reception leagues, while Flacco and Mason have also been big.
The Ravens probably have the easiest road to one of the AFC's two Wild Card spots, helped by the matchup and the fact that all they have to do is win. With the likes of Mason, Reed and Lewis on board, one has to figure there is no chance that Baltimore will come out flat in this one. Self-inflicted wounds are a worry, but the stakes are too high for the Ravens and too meaningless for the Raiders to bet against Baltimore. Expect the Ravens to still be playing next weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 27, Raiders 12
12/31 13:27:35 ET