Coming off their worst offensive performance in nearly four years, the Baltimore Ravens are eager to return home. The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, may not be looking forward to their latest stop on the road.
The Ravens attempt to rebound from a tough loss in Sunday's clash with a reeling Cardinals team that's dropped five consecutive contests and enters M&T Bank Stadium on a 10-game skid as the visitor.
Baltimore had strung together three straight victories of double-digit margins heading to Monday's seemingly facile matchup with a one-win Jacksonville squad. That impressive run would come to an end, however, after the determined Jaguars put forth a stifling defensive display that resulted in a 12-7 triumph over their more credentialed foe.
The Ravens either turned the ball over or went three-and-out on their first nine drives and mustered a paltry 16 yards at halftime. The offense didn't record a first down until five minutes left in the third quarter and finished the night with 146 total yards, Baltimore's fewest in a game since a 104-yard output in a 38-7 loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 5, 2007.
"Not even close to the way we are capable of performing on offense," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh remarked. "Everybody realizes that. "We've all got to do a better job of coaching, playing, executing -- all those different things."
Coming back to M&T Bank Stadium could very well get Baltimore, which fell a game behind the rival Steelers for first place in the challenging AFC North with the defeat, back on track. The Ravens have prevailed in 13 of their last 14 games at the venue and averaged nearly 29 points in those wins. The club hasn't scored less than 29 points in besting a trio conference contenders (Pittsburgh, New York Jets, Houston) in its first three home outings of this season.
Arizona has endured far different outcomes when competing on the road as of late. The Cardinals haven't won as the guest since topping St. Louis in the 2010 season opener and are 0-3 away from home so far this year, though they came close to ending the drought in narrow losses at Washington and Seattle back in September.
Those two defeats began Arizona's present overall losing streak, which was extended with a 32-20 home setback to Pittsburgh last Sunday. The Cardinals' maligned defense was torched for three Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes and 445 total yards, while struggling quarterback Kevin Kolb delivered another shaky showing under center.
Kolb, acquired by the Cardinals and subsequently signed to a lavish six-year, $65 million contract this past summer to hopefully fill the team's glaring need for a franchise signal-caller, did throw for 272 yards and two scores against the Steelers, but completed an off-target 18-of-34 passes and had an interception that set up a Pittsburgh touchdown.
The ex-Philadelphia Eagle has a 66.8 passer rating over the course of Arizona's five-game slide, the lowest of any starting quarterback in the NFL during that stretch.
Kolb is hardly entirely to blame for the Cardinals' woes, however. Arizona is 28th overall in pass defense and allowing 388.3 total yards per game, the sixth-worst mark in the league.
"When you have lost five games in a row, I don't think anybody is progressing at the rate that we need to go forward," said Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt. "We're not where we want to be, and everybody's going to be held accountable for that as we go forward."
The Cardinals and Ravens have faced off four times previously, with Baltimore taking the last three bouts since losing the initial meeting back in 1997. The Ravens edged Arizona by a 26-23 count the last time these teams opposed one another, which took place at M&T Bank Stadium in 2007. The Cardinals' lone win in the series also occurred in Baltimore, a 16-13 decision on Nov. 23, 1997.
Whisenhunt, who served as Baltimore's tight end coach from 1997-98, lost his only career encounter with the Ravens as a head coach with that 2007 defeat, while Harbaugh will be squaring off against both the Cardinals and Whisenhunt for the first time in his current position.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Praised for his accuracy throughout his four-year stint as mainly a backup in Philadelphia, Kolb (1553 passing yards, 7 TD, 7 INT) has hit on just 56.4 percent of his attempts during Arizona's present losing streak and thrown seven interceptions over those five games. The Cardinals will need him to improve in those areas in a tough matchup this week, especially with leading rusher Beanie Wells (423 rushing yards, 6 TD) looking unlikely to play against the Ravens after exiting the Pittsburgh game with a right knee injury. Onetime practice- squad member Alfonso Smith (89 rushing yards, 1 TD) looms as the favorite to handle most of the ball-carrying duties on Sunday, with diminutive spark-plug LaRod Stephens-Howling (4 receptions, 1 TD) to be used in third-down situations and as a change-of-pace alternative. The status of tight end Todd Heap (13 receptions), who's sat out Arizona's last two tests with a strained hamstring, is also uncertain, though the ex-Raven is trying his best to make himself available to face his former organization for the first time since being cut loose in July after 10 productive seasons in Baltimore. The veteran's presence would bring a boost to a passing game that's been heavily dependent on All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald (31 receptions, 505 yards, 2 TD), though slot specialist Early Doucet (26 receptions, 2 TD) has emerged as a decent second option for Kolb.
Baltimore's offense may have been stuck in neutral all night long on Monday, but its traditionally-stout defense lived up to its reputation in the shocking loss. The Ravens limited the Jaguars to 205 total yards and a mere 73 net passing yards, while registering four sacks of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and yielding only two successful third-down conversions in 16 attempts. Opponents have found it hard to throw on the unit all season long, with Baltimore ranked fourth in the NFL in pass defense (186.8 ypg) at the moment and having surrendered just four touchdowns through the air. A stellar secondary has gotten excellent play out of perennial All-Pro Ed Reed (23 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and the hard-hitting Bernard Pollard (16 tackles, 4 PD) out of the safety spots, while high-effort outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (20 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) heads up a strong pass rush that's produced 19 sacks over the first six games. The Ravens have also allowed the fewest points (13.8 ppg) in the league and stand third in run defense (85.8 ypg), though Jaguars standout Maurice-Jones Drew was able to surpass 100 yards on the group. With such difference-makers as iconic inside linebacker Ray Lewis (50 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and massive lineman Haloti Ngata (24 tackles, 3 sacks) anchoring the front seven, odds are such an occurrence won't take place a second straight week.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Ravens' deplorable demonstration on offense in the Jacksonville game didn't just draw criticism for the team's utter lack of efficiency, but running back Ray Rice's (426 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 2 total TD) reduced role in the game plan placed the coaching staff under fire as well. The outstanding fourth- year pro carried the ball just eight times for 28 yards in the loss and recorded only 13 total touches, so count on a heavier workload for Baltimore's best playmaker this time around. The passing attack has been spotty all season long as well, with quarterback Joe Flacco (1415 passing yards, 8 TD, 5 INT) entering this week's play with a career-low 52.1 completion percentage and managing under 170 yards in two of his last three appearances. The receiving corps does have a reliable constant in veteran Anquan Boldin (27 receptions, 394 yards, 2 TD), the former Arizona Pro Bowler who was traded to the Ravens prior to the 2010 campaign after engaging in a drawn-out contract squabble with the Cardinals, while Rice is one of the league's best pass-catching backs and second-year tight end Ed Dickson (22 receptions, 1 TD) has been a contributor in place of Heap. The wideout spot opposite Boldin, who will be opposing his ex-team for the first time, has been problematic, as expected starter Lee Evans hasn't played since Week 2 due to a serious ankle injury and rookie substitute Torrey Smith (12 reception, 3 TD) has been inconsistent despite flashing big- play potential.
Flacco may have an opportunity to remedy his recent struggles on Sunday, as the Cardinals have been among the league's worst teams in defending the pass. Roethlisberger became the fourth quarterback this season to throw for 290 yards on Arizona in last weekend's clash, and the Cards are permitting an average of 274.2 yards per game (28th overall) while having come up with just four interceptions. A beleaguered secondary will be without free safety Kerry Rhodes (24 tackles, 2 sacks) for a second straight week after he broke his foot in an early October loss at Minnesota, while the young cornerback tandem of heralded rookie Patrick Peterson (32 tackles, 1 INT) and A.J. Jefferson (33 tackles, 9 PD) has been undergoing a season-long baptism by fire. The duo hasn't been helped much by a sporadic pass rush, though linemen Calais Campbell (31 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Darnell Dockett (18 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Clark Haggans (17 tackles, 1 sack) have all been generally solid in that area. Arizona hasn't been bad against the run, having held opponents to a modest 3.8 yards per rush attempt on the year.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How these two quarterbacks perform will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this one. Flacco's numbers this season have been less than stellar, but the Ravens are awfully tough to beat when the 2008 first-round pick is on his game, and he's been historically very good at home. Baltimore is 24-3 all- time when Flacco has a passer rating of 95 or above, an achievable mark considering Arizona's problems in pass defense. With Wells probably not suiting up, the Cardinals are going to need Kolb to step up his game to have a chance to pull off the upset.
Arizona's also going to have to take care of the football in order to end its extensive skid. That's been an issue for the team this season, however, as the Cardinals are an unwanted minus-five in turnover ratio, and the Ravens often excel at forcing their opponents into mistakes at home. Eleven of Baltimore's 15 takeaways this year have occurred in its three games at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Cardinals have had a habit of being sluggish in early kickoffs on the East Coast in the past, and a slow start on Sunday would prove difficult to overcome. The Ravens have outscored foes by a 59-10 margin in the first quarter this season.
Forget about what you saw out of the Ravens in that Monday night debacle. They're a much different team at home, and have never lost to a sub-.500 opponent at M&T Bank Stadium under Harbaugh's direction. Factor in Arizona's longstanding struggles on the road, a cross-country trip, and a very difficult matchup for the erratic Kolb against a fearsome Baltimore defense, and all the ingredients for a blowout by the more talented and established Ravens appear to be in place.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 30, Cardinals 10