If there's a silver lining to the injury bug that's bitten the Baltimore Ravens this season, it comes in the form of being able to finally evaluate Joe Flacco as the team's leader and star player. Against the Raiders on Sunday, Flacco was clearly up to the task, putting up one of the best games of his career, as he went 21-for-33 with 341 yards, three passing touchdowns, and a rushing score against a lone interception. He was the point man on an offense that produced 48 points despite getting just 68 yards from scrimmage out of Ray Rice, and while the Raiders don't have a great defense these days, Flacco's performance would qualify as impressive against any defense.
Now Flacco's test truly begins. Having played a relatively easy schedule so far this season, the Ravens are about to embark on a season-ending seven-game stretch that rates as arguably the most difficult closeout to the season of any AFC team. And with Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb out, Haloti Ngata (who was active but didn't play against the Raiders) gimpy, and Ed Reed playing through a torn labrum in his shoulder, critics can't point to the defense and suggest that it's going to carry Flacco through. Flacco is going to prove what sort of company he belongs in over the final seven games of the year, just in time for his impending unrestricted free agency this offseason.
While Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder injury could force Byron Leftwich into the starting lineup next Sunday and make this more palatable, there's just not much respite for Flacco's team over the next seven weeks. The Ravens start with a two-game road trip — first the Steelers, then they head out West to face the Chargers, whose only losses at home this year are to the Falcons and the Broncos. Then they have their second game against the Steelers (this one at home) before traveling to Washington for their local derby with Robert Griffin III. They finish up the season hosting the Broncos and Giants, then have a tricky trip to Cincinnati on the final day of the season. That's four games against likely playoff teams, two against a pair of teams on the edges of the AFC playoff hunt, and one against the league's most unpredictable and exciting player. The 7-2 Ravens likely only need two wins to qualify for the playoffs, but three will essentially guarantee them a spot, and four would make it extremely likely that they'll win the division (unless they lose both games to the Steelers and Pittsburgh goes on a huge hot streak). Five would put them in competition with the Patriots and Texans for the top two seeds in the AFC and likely deliver a first-round bye.
Is Flacco up to the task? That remains to be seen. As I mentioned was likely before the season, Flacco's numbers are up from a disappointing 2011 campaign, but they've risen back to where Flacco was during his first three seasons in the league. Flacco's core rate statistics are extremely similar to the player he was before that 2011 campaign:
The Ravens offense has changed over that time frame, too, in ways that affect Flacco's raw numbers. That offense was built primarily around the power running game, six-offensive-lineman sets, and a passing game that was designed to insulate Flacco from risk and complete passes to the relatively limited likes of Todd Heap and Derrick Mason. Now, Flacco has a group of more explosive receivers in Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, and Anquan Boldin, and he's throwing the ball more frequently. From 2008 through 2010, the Ravens ran the ball on just over 50 percent of their offensive plays. This year, Baltimore's running rate is down to just below 40 percent. Over the course of a full season, that's about 100 plays shifting from the running game to the passing game. It says a lot about how much more faith the Ravens have in their quarterback these days. On the other hand, his numbers haven't improved all that much with the added reps and increase in experience. Baltimore ranks fourth in points scored but is second in the league in rushing touchdowns and 13th in scores through the passing game.
How much are these next seven games worth to Flacco? Well, let's consider possible comparable contracts for him based upon how he does. If he plays well and leads the Ravens to a couple of big wins, even a playoff flame-out wouldn't be enough to keep Flacco away from big money. He'd probably be looking at a deal roughly similar to the one just signed by Matt Schaub, who got a four-year contract for $62 million that guarantees him $30 million. Because he's younger, Flacco's deal could look something like a five-year, $75 million contract with $40 million or more in guarantees. Putting the franchise tag on Flacco doesn't make sense given Baltimore's cap situation and the amount of money it would cost to give Flacco a one-year deal. If the Ravens were forced to move on, Flacco could end up getting that $75 million deal from a quarterback-hungry team like the Chiefs, Jaguars, Cardinals, or even the Eagles (if Michael Vick is released).
On the other hand, if he collapses and the Ravens end up stumbling into the playoffs before losing immediately, Flacco's contract becomes much more difficult to price. In a way, it might make Flacco easier to re-sign, since he'll be demanding less money from Baltimore and likely to take a deal with more years to spread out the cap hit of his contract. Such a deal could look something like Ryan Fitzpatrick's contract with the Bills, where the Harvard grad got $62 million over seven years, but with just $24 million guaranteed over that time frame and less money over the first three years of the deal. Flacco would get more than Fitzpatrick, but he would still likely be looking at a difference of about $10 million or so in guaranteed money between the two deals.
Flacco is not going to be broke in either scenario, so it's safe to say that he won't be concerning himself with the money during the final half of the season. He'll be plenty distracted by the run of tough matchups facing his team, a run he'll have to embark upon without many of the team's defensive stars in the lineup or at anything resembling their normal selves. Announcers often unconsciously refer to a quarterback as "leading" a team, even when he's being led by the defense and the running game, especially at the beginning of that quarterback's career. Eli Manning won a Super Bowl while riding the coattails of his defense, but by the time his second Super Bowl run came around, he had taken over and was both the best player on his team and its unquestioned leader. Mark Sanchez got the same press during his first two AFC Championship Game trips, but when his defense fell apart and his running game dissipated, he was revealed to be a failure. Flacco is at that same fork in the road. It will be fascinating to see which path he takes over the next three months.
Beware the Six-and-Two
Why, oh why, did the cursed Giants have to start 6-2? I'm not normally a person who believes in really simple trends like these, but it's impossible to argue against the idea that the Giants have a generic trend under Tom Coughlin. The team generally struggles in Week 1 and even, sometimes, into Week 2 before going on an impressive winning streak. Right after the midseason point, the Giants suddenly lapse and fall into a disappointing stretch of losing football, often inspiring talk that the team has quit on Coughlin, before a resurgence leads to a two- or three-game stretch at the end of the year that defines their year and determines whether they'll make it into the playoffs or not.
I have an even scarier fact, though, that seems too impossible to be true. The season marks the fifth year in Coughlin's nine-year tenure with the team that the Giants started 6-2, a record that the Giants have now hit in three consecutive seasons. Every team in the league would be happy with a 6-2 start, so it's hard to imagine that the Giants are anything but delighted with that run of winning play. On the other hand, though, that 6-2 start has been followed — every single time — by a run of losses. This cannot possibly be coincidence.
Don't believe me? Let's go through the past. In 2005, the Giants shocked the league by getting out to a 6-2 start, but they promptly lost two of their next three games. They recovered by going on a three-game winning streak, but they were knocked out by the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs.
Two years later, the 2007 Super Bowl Giants followed an absolutely grotesque pair of losses with a six-game winning streak to hit that vaunted 6-2 figure. They went on their bye and, again, proceeded to lose two of their next three games. They scuffled with poor play from Manning until the final two weeks of the year, when they blew out the Bills and narrowly lost to the Patriots before setting up that playoff run to the title.
In 2010, the Giants again started 6-2, punctuating that hot start with a 41-7 win in Seattle over the Seahawks. It meant absolutely nothing two weeks later, when a pair of losses to the Cowboys and Eagles marked a two-game losing streak that called their NFC East run into question. A three-game winning streak righted the ship, but that infamous 21-point collapse in the fourth quarter against the Eagles and a blowout loss to the Packers cost them their playoff berth.
Last year, the 6-2 Giants finished that hot start with a 24-20 comeback win over the Patriots in New England, only to fall all the way back to .500, courtesy of a four-game losing streak that saw Big Blue play three NFC playoff teams and the Eagles. They finished 3-1 and swept the Cowboys to get into the playoffs, and you know what happened from there.
This year? The punctuating win wasn't really all that great, although victories over the Cowboys in Texas are always fun for Giants fans who grew up facing the Jimmy Johnson dynasty in the early '90s. They've lost back-to-back games against the AFC North now, and their schedule is downright scary after the bye, as they play the Packers (home), Redskins (away), Saints (home), Falcons (away), Ravens (away), and Eagles (home) to close out the year. If the Giants want to go on their perennial hot streak after their equally perennial mid-season losing streak, it's going to come against tough competition.
That's truly remarkable. A team with a .750 winning percentage over a 40-game stretch (6-2 in each of five seasons) has promptly gone 3-11 across the five subsequent three-game stretches that followed those hot starts. (That figure only includes the two played games from this season.) I don't truly believe that the Giants have had the talent quality of a .750 team over that time frame, but if we assumed that for fun, the odds that a team that normally wins 75 percent of its games would go 3-11 or worse over a 14-game stretch are a little over 25,000-to-1.
There are genuine reasons why the Giants do play worse in the second half after a hot first-half start. I researched the topic for Football Outsiders a couple of years ago and found that the Giants played a much tougher schedule in the second half, often with a disproportionate number of matchups against their NFC East brethren (back when the NFC East was good). Their pass defense was always worse in the second half than it was in the first half, often significantly worse, and a tiring pass rush had some responsibility for that decline. Of course, a lot of it just happens to be coincidence, too; the 2008 Giants started 6-1, won to go 7-1, and promptly continued their winning streak to go all the way to 11-1 before taking their foot off the pedal and losing three of their final four games.
With all that being said, the Giants are safer this year than most others. They have a 1.5-game lead on the Cowboys in the NFC East and are the only team in the division with a positive point differential; their plus-51 mark is 67 points ahead of the Cowboys, a figure that suggests that the Giants are playing at a level two full wins higher than their rivals. If they can go 3-3 over their final six games, it should be enough to get them into the playoffs as the champions of the NFC East. And once they get into the playoffs, of course, strange things happen.