The Baltimore Ravens head out on yet another cross-country trip this week -- their fourth in seven games -- as they travel to Arizona for a Monday Night Football matchup against a Cardinals team that cannot afford to lose what looks like a winnable game at home.
The 1-5 Ravens are off to their worst start in franchise history, and unless they can engineer a miraculous turnaround, will likely finish with a losing record for the first time since 2007. It is not a stretch to say that their season is over -- at least in terms of playing meaningful games in December and January. Entering Week 7, they trailed the Bengals by five games in the division and were three games back of the Steelers for the final wild card spot.
Sure, it's not even Halloween yet, but it might be time for the Ravens to start learning what they can salvage from this lost campaign as they look ahead to 2016. Per ESPN's Football Power Index, the Ravens have a better chance of finishing with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft (3.6 percent) than making the playoffs (2.2 percent).
A win on Monday night would be a nice footnote in this dismal season, but the reality is that the Ravens still face incredibly long odds to reach the playoffs. No team has reached the postseason after starting with five losses in their first six games since the 1970 Bengals.
Although the Cardinals have cooled off since their 3-0 start, losing two of their last three games, they are still in the driver's seat in the NFC West. No other team in the division had more than two wins entering the weekend, and Football Outsiders' projections gave them a 76.8 percent chance to win the division.
However, there are still some serious concerns about this team's ability to make a deep playoff run because of the fact that they've gotten fat on bad teams and have stumbled when facing decent opponents. Their four wins have come against teams with a combined 7-17 record through Week 6. In their two losses against the Rams and Steelers, Arizona outgained both teams but struggled to finish drives and close out both games.
It is tough to understand this puzzling Cardinals team that has looked brilliant in its wins and very mediocre in its losses. One thing is certain, they cannot look past a seemingly inferior opponent like the Ravens (and the Browns next week) if they are going to remain atop the NFC West and be a true contender down the stretch.
The Ravens are 1-5 but they are probably not as bad as their record suggests. Each of their first six games has been decided by a touchdown or less, and they've somehow lost five of them. Their five losses in one-score games are easily the most in the NFL this season. Entering the weekend they ranked a respectable 19th in point differential, yet were one of five teams with just one win.
Whether it's because of bad luck, poor execution, bad play-calling or a combination of all three, the Ravens' inability to win tight games so far is unprecedented in football history. Since 1940, they are the only team that has five losses by a margin of fewer than seven points within their first six games of the season.
While the Ravens' season has been defined by narrow losses, the theme of the Cardinals' season has been blowout wins. Their average margin of victory in their four wins is 25.5 points, easily the best among teams that have won more than one game this season. Three of their four victories have come by 25 points or more; no other team in the league had more than one 25-point win through the first six weeks.
The Cardinals' offensive ranks look strong overall (second in points, fifth in yardage), but the breakdown between their wins and losses is staggering: they've scored 31, 48, 47 and 42 points in their victories. In their losses, they've put up just 13 and 22 points.
The offense has been able to move the ball consistently in each game, but has wilted inside the 20 yard line in the two games they lost. They scored two touchdowns in nine red-zone trips against the Rams and Steelers (both losses); in their other four games (all wins), they scored 16 touchdowns in 17 red-zone trips. This Jekyll-and-Hyde offense should be a serious concern for the Cardinals going forward, and probably casts doubt on whether they are truly an elite team.
Who to Watch
Larry Fitzgerald - The veteran receiver is enjoying a turn-back-the-clock season at the age of 32, and is on pace for a career-best 1,555 receiving yards. He has done his best work as a slot receiver this year, ranking third in total yards and second in yards per route run. Regardless of where he lines up, though, Fitzgerald is primed to have another strong performance on Monday night against the Ravens' 27th-ranked passing defense.
Steve Smith - What Smith is doing this season in the twilight of his career is amazing. Playing with multiple fractures in his back, he still managed to catch seven passes for 137 yards and a touchdown last week against the 49ers. The 36-year-old looks like he's in his prime (510 yards and 36 receptions in five games) rather than on the cusp of retirement. He should end up in the top 10 on the all-time yardage list among receivers, and needs just 228 yards to become the 10th player in NFL history with 14,000 receiving yards.
How to Watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Commentators: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
According to the experts, the Cardinals are a lock to win this game. Every guy at CBS Sports, ESPN and SB Nation has Arizona beating the Ravens on Monday night.
The Cardinals are 10-point favorites and the over/under is 48 points, per OddsShark.com.
To read up on the Ravens, head over to Baltimore Beatdown. For everything Cardinals, be sure to check out Revenge of the Birds.
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