Tue, 21 Sep 2021

What Mink Thinks: In a Mighty AFC, Ravens' Challenge Got Tougher

Baltimore Ravens
12 Sep 2021, 23:25 GMT+10

Ryan Mink

As the Ravens moved on following two more stunning season-ending injuries this week, they rallied behind the belief that they are still a "really good team with a lot of great players."

Both are true. Baltimore still has one of the best rosters in the NFL, led by one of the game's premier playmakers in Lamar Jackson.

But even before the Ravens' freakish string of injuries, the question entering this season was whether Baltimore was good enough to beat some of the other titans in the mighty AFC.

Now the Ravens are without two of their top projected playmakers - running back J.K. Dobbins and cornerback Marcus Peters - for the year. That's a sizeable dent, and it's fair to wonder whether it will be the difference when it comes to Baltimore getting over the proverbial "hump" this year.

Look around. The Ravens reside in perhaps the best division in the league, with the Cleveland Browns owning one of the most talent-rich rosters (that's what happens when you draft near the top every year for a decade-plus) and the Pittsburgh Steelers being, well, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The rest of the conference is loaded with young, star quarterbacks and other mega-talents - the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, the Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen, the Los Angeles Chargers and Justin Herbert, the Tennessee Titans and Derrick Henry. It sure feels like the AFC is stronger than it has been in a long time, and it's not changing anytime soon.

The Ravens are one of those top teams too - a bona fide Super Bowl contender. Every other AFC team and their fans' count Baltimore and Jackson on their list of roadblocks.

This year, Baltimore was hoping to give Jackson more help, so he didn't have to be Superman every time he took the field. That's why the Ravens signed Sammy Watkins (and aggressively pursued other top free-agent wide receivers). That's why Baltimore drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round and bucked up for better blocking with right guard Kevin Zeitler.

Dobbins was a huge part of that calculation, too. Entering his sophomore year, he was going to bring another dynamic to Baltimore's offense as a homerun threat as a runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield. Behind Jackson, Dobbins might have been Baltimore's biggest offensive threat, though Mark Andrews and Marquise "Hollywood" Brown would have something to say about that.

Peters is the wild card in the Ravens' defense. The NFL's leader in interceptions since he entered the league, he was Baltimore's biggest defensive playmaker. Fellow cornerback Marlon Humphrey is one of the NFL's top cornerbacks and his "Fruit Punch" is top of mind for opposing wide receivers. But when quarterbacks are thinking about who they don't want to throw at, Peters is top of mind.

The Ravens have suitable replacements. Baltimore felt good about Gus Edwards' chances of stepping up with Dobbins out - until he also went down with an ACL tear. His replacement, veteran Latavius Murray, is an Edwards look-alike in size and style. Anthony Averett, who has been waiting three years for his chance to be a starter, has consistently impressed whenever he's been on the field.

But Murray was just released by the New Orleans Saints, who thought an undrafted rookie could handle the No. 2 job instead of the veteran. Averett has zero NFL interceptions to Peters' 31. The "next man up" isn't the same man up. There's no sugarcoating it; the Ravens just aren't as good as they were three weeks ago.

So where does that leave Baltimore in the AFC picture? Are the Ravens good enough to still knock off those other conference titans and reach their Super Bowl dreams?

Well, they still have Jackson, but they're probably also going to need to find some other ingredient to do so. Perhaps resilience will be it. Harbaugh is a master at keeping his teams motivated, and no stranger to using the "odds-are-against-us" rallying cry.

There's a lot of time for this team to get battle-hardened over the course of the season (the Ravens' schedule will require it). If the Ravens come out of it still in the playoffs, as I expect they will, they will be a formidable foe once again.

What happens from there? Who knows? The Ravens' 2012 Super-Bowl winning team wasn't as good as the 2011 squad. Baltimore's 2000 Super Bowl unit had an anemic offense for half the season. It's all about getting into the dance, and the Ravens still have a team capable of getting there.

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