Rested Ravens ready to pounce on woeful Panthers
For 10 days the Baltimore Ravens have had nothing to do but agonize over their last-minute loss to Atlanta.
Thanks to playing on a Thursday night, the Ravens have had three extra days to hear criticism about their slow starts, their struggles on the road, the inconsistent play of their once-feared defense and mounting questions about whether they are indeed Super Bowl contenders.
''Sometimes that can be a positive,'' coach John Harbaugh said, ''to let it simmer a little bit.''
Sunday is the perfect chance for the Ravens (6-3) to get well again and keep pace with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North. The Carolina Panthers have become the NFL version of a homecoming opponent.
The potential matchups at Bank of America Stadium are comically one-sided. The Panthers (1-8) will start Brian St. Pierre at quarterback, who last week was a stay-at-home dad and has thrown five passes in eight years in the NFL. Their top three running backs, two starting offensive linemen and No. 3 receiver aren't expected to play, either.
The Panthers managed to be the NFL's worst offensive team before the barrage of injuries hit in the past few weeks. Imagine the prospect of St. Pierre, who wasn't even in a training camp this summer, trying to move the ball against Ray Lewis and company, who have 10 days worth of pent up frustration?
''You hear of stories, a guy like Kurt Warner who was stocking shelves,'' said St. Pierre, who was signed by Carolina late last week. ''I don't know what my story is going to be. Right now it is what it is. I'm happy for the opportunity.''
The Panthers got to this point after Matt Moore was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury earlier this month, and rookie Jimmy Clausen sustained a concussion on the final offensive player in last week's 31-16 loss to Tampa Bay.
Fox, in the last year of contract, decided St. Pierre was a better option than Tony Pike, a sixth-round pick who played in the spread offense at Cincinnati.
''Times are hard,'' Panthers receiver Steve Smith said. ''As they say when it rains it pours, so you just break out your umbrella.''
The Ravens have never beaten the Panthers, losing the three previous meetings, but are determined to get back on track after allowing Matt Ryan and the Falcons to drive 80 yards for the winning touchdown in the final minute Nov. 11. The Ravens claimed Roddy White pushed cornerback Josh Wilson to the turf before the winning catch.
''I would have rather played a game right after that Thursday, personally,'' Wilson said. ''But we had some time to look over it and learn ourselves. That's the most important thing with all this stuff in all these games, is learning yourself and learning how the Ravens' defense needs to play.''
The Ravens have allowed 66 points in the fourth quarter this season, four more than they allowed all last season. They've dropped to 10th in the league in total defense, putting in jeopardy a streak of seven straight years in the top six.
''I think this defense has the ability to go on and do whatever we want to do once we finally start solidifying those pieces on who's going to be our starters,'' Lewis said.
The struggling secondary has a chance to gain confidence against Carolina, whose top two remaining quarterbacks have thrown 17 passes in their NFL careers. Carolina, which has scored nine touchdowns this season, could again start fourth-string running back Mike Goodson, too.
Harbaugh wasn't hiding their defensive plan: blitz early and often.
''If you can really rattle them early, then you can really get them off their spot and really start making them do things that they really don't want to do,'' Lewis said.
Perhaps weighed down by being on the field so much, Carolina's defense has slipped from fourth to 14th in the league after allowing 65 points and 829 yards to New Orleans and Tampa Bay the past two weeks. The Panthers recently lost middle linebacker Dan Connor for the season and two-time Pro Bowl pick Jon Beason is hobbled by a sore knee.
''We're just trying to stay positive,'' Beason said. ''We realize that we're young, and we realize that we really got hit hard with the injury bug this year. A lot of things are stacked up against us.''
The Ravens could use a good offensive outing on the road, too. They've been blanked in the first quarter in eight of the last 11 road games. Joe Flacco's seven interceptions this season have all come in road games.
But Flacco has plenty of receiving targets. While the Panthers refused to get into the Anquan Boldin or T.J. Houshmandzadeh sweepstakes in the offseason, the Ravens snatched up both players. Houshmandzadeh needs one catch to make the Ravens the third team in NFL history to have three receivers with 600.
The Panthers can only dream about that kind of experience in a season that keeps getting worse. An angry, rested and healthy Baltimore team is poised to keep them miserable.
''It does seem like a long time since we played,'' Harbaugh said. ''We are creatures of habit. You get into a routine Sunday to Sunday. But our guys are rested up, and we're probably as healthy as we can be, and we're ready to go.''