Locked in a tight battle for an AFC wild-card spot, the Baltimore Ravens face Indianapolis and Pittsburgh on the road in the following two weeks. That makes Sunday’s home game against the sinking New York Giants one that they can’t afford to lose.
Looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss and avoid a third straight defeat, the Ravens will try to take advantage of rookie quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants at M&T Bank Stadium.
This is the first meeting between the teams since the Ravens’ 34-7 victory in Super Bowl XXXV. Jim Fassel, who coached the Giants from 1997-2003, is now a senior consultant with the Ravens and has been working on the development of second-year quarterback Kyle Boller.
Baltimore was victimized last week by the Bengals’ Carson Palmer, who threw for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Cincinnati rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Ravens 27-26 on Sunday.
Shayne Graham kicked a 24-yard field goal as time expired, giving Cincinnati its first win in Baltimore in eight tries since 1996.
The comeback came against a defense that entered the game tied for the NFL lead in fewest points allowed, and for three quarters the host Ravens played up to that billing. But a 20-3 advantage disappeared under a barrage of Palmer passes in the final period.
“It would be nice to say it was just one thing, but it wasn’t,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “We played poorly, and not in just one area.”
The Bengals’ 24 fourth-quarter points were the most ever allowed by Baltimore in the final period.
Boller went 19-for-33 for 172 yards with no TDs and one interception, performing well at times but getting clearly outplayed by Palmer, the top draft pick in 2003 when Boller was taken 19th overall.
Boller played poorly in a 24-3 loss to New England on Nov. 28, going 15-of-35 for 93 yards, one INT and no touchdowns.
Sunday’s loss was a major blow to Baltimore’s playoff hopes. The Ravens, whose two straight losses followed a three-game win streak, fell into a tie with Denver for the second and final AFC wild-card berth. They have little chance of catching the 11-1 Steelers and repeating as AFC North champions.
“We’ve got a real uphill climb,” coach Brian Billick conceded.
That’s what makes Sunday’s matchup with the Giants so important. Baltimore could be looking at losses the next two weeks, meaning a win over New York could be vital to its postseason hopes.
While the Ravens had no answers last week for the first player drafted in 2003, Manning is unlikely to come close to duplicating Palmer’s performance this week. The 23-year-old Manning, taken first in this year’s draft by San Diego and then traded to New York, will be making his fourth straight start and has been suffering through the growing pains of a first-year NFL quarterback.
Manning completed 12 of 25 passes for just 113 yards as the Giants lost their fifth straight last week, 31-7 to Washington. The rookie has led just one touchdown drive in his three starts.
“We physically got whipped up front on both sides of the ball. … I don’t see anybody who’s not trying at all. I see frustration out there,” said coach Tom Coughlin, who said he’ll continue to start Manning. “I don’t think anybody’s more frustrated than I am.”
The banged-up Giants defense, already missing linemen Michael Strahan and Keith Washington for the season, played without tackle Norman Hand because of a groin injury.
New York is one game behind St. Louis for the last NFC wild-card spot, but is tied with Carolina, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas, and would lose the tiebreaker to every one of them except the Cowboys. The Giants would only get that tiebreaker if they beat Dallas in their season finale.