Vikings vs. Ravens 2013 game preview: Baltimore still fighting to defend their title

Despite a disappointing season following their Super Bowl championship, a weakness in the middle of the AFC has kept the Ravens playoff hopes alive.

The Baltimore Ravens shocked pretty much everybody when they won Super Bowl XLVII over the San Francisco 49ers this past February. But that would be nothing compared to seeing the Ravens repeat if they could manage to pull it off next February.

Thanks to three wins in their last four games, and a struggling AFC that's opened the door for a .500 team to possibly win a wild card berth, Baltimore might just get their shot.

They will continue that fight in Week 14 against the Minnesota Vikings, a team that has no shot remaining to make a return trip to the playoffs and instead is still trying to figure out if they have a quarterback worth retaining for the 2014 season as they prepare for next April's draft.

But as we've seen all season long, that hardly means that this is going to be an easy win for Baltimore.

Meet the Ravens

After finding themselves in cap trouble following their championship win, the Ravens saw linebacker Ray Lewis retire, safety Ed Reed leave via free agency, and traded receiver Anquan Boldin to the 49ers. Linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger also got big deals on the open market, leaving Baltimore to fill a lot of holes on the roster as they signed quarterback Joe Flacco to the biggest deal in history.

It took awhile for things to come together again for the Ravens, but following a 49-27 Week 1 loss to the Denver Broncos and a 3-5 start to the season, Baltimore finds themselves at 6-6 and in the lead for the sixth and final AFC playoff berth.

The Ravens allowed seven touchdowns and over 400 yards passing to Peyton Manning in the opener, but have given up just 12 touchdowns against nine interceptions in their 11 games since. They should have no problem stopping the next passing attack, considering how poorly that has gone for Minnesota this year.

Meet the Vikings

Head coach Leslie Frazier has shuffled between three quarterbacks this season as he tries to find a way to keep Minnesota afloat and also keep his job. He will likely need to win out for a chance to do the latter, but it appears he has no choice but to go with the healthiest and most-ready option this week against Baltimore.

That means that veteran Matt Cassel will make his third start of the year, but at least those games have gone much better than Christian Ponder's starts.

Cassel is 1-1 as a starter for the Vikings, but also led them to a 23-20 win over the Chicago Bears in Week 13 after Ponder came out of the game with a concussion. Cassel had some of the worst numbers of the 2012 season when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs, but looks to be earning himself a solid job as at least a backup somewhere next year. A win over the Ravens wouldn't hurt.

It's just a shame to see running back Adrian Peterson, once again leading the league in rushing, see his efforts overshadowed during a poor overall season for Minnesota.

Local Takes: Baltimore Ravens

Another major piece missing from the Ravens this season has been tight end Dennis Pitta. He was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, and Jason Butt at Baltimore Beatdown talks about how likely it is that the team will activate Pitta and how soon it needs to happen:

So, in theory, the Ravens could choose not to activate Pitta this week if they don't think he's ready. A decision will have to be made by next Wednesday at the latest. That will be the final point as to whether Pitta plays again this season or not. Pitta has been practicing with the team the past two weeks but has yet to be activated from injured reserve-designated to return. Previous reports indicated that the next move could come before this game.

Local Takes: Minnesota Vikings

Eric Thompson at Daily Norseman talked about Cassel being named the starter this week, and how much that really matters:

It probably doesn't matter who the Vikings have under center down the stretch, but it is worth noting that Cassel has been the quarterback at the end of all three Vikings victories this season. He did OK last week and is probably gives the team the best chance to win at this point. Of course choosing the quarterback that gives Minnesota the best chance at winning is a lot like choosing between the last three kids that haven't been picked at gym class, but it's still a choice the team has to make.

Follow the Fun

Be sure to check out SB Nation's team blogs, Baltimore BeatdownDaily Norseman, for more analysis and highlights from the game.

Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:

@BmoreBeatdown

@DailyNorseman

Prediction

The Ravens drafted Flacco in the first round in 2008 and he has started every game since, making the playoffs and winning at least one postseason game in every year he has been in the league. If he wants to keep that streak alive, winning their last four games would guarantee at least the wild card.

Meanwhile, the Vikings have been more competitive lately, going 2-1-1 in their last four games, but there are no playoffs in their future. Can pull off an upset in Baltimore this Sunday?

It doesn't seem very likely.

Ravens 21, Vikings 10

Odds

The Ravens are 7-point favorites, according to OddsShark.com. The Vikings are 6-6 against the spread, compared to 6-5-1 for Baltimore.

Next Week

Baltimore heads to Detroit to take on the Lions on Monday Night Football, while Minnesota goes back home to face the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

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