MIKE O'HARA

FRIDAY FOCUS: Ravens are a veteran team that knows how to earn clutch wins

Posted Dec 13, 2013

Mike O'Hara predicts a tight battle that will end in a Lions victory on Monday Night

By any analogy to other sports that seems appropriate to describe the fragile playoff situation the Lions are because of their late-season swoon, the only sure remedy to cure what ails them is winning.

Three losses in the last four games have dropped the Lions into a tie with the Bears for first place in the NFC North and left them with no realistic margin of error as they begin a final three-game sprint against the Baltimore Ravens at Ford Field on Monday night.

"Must win" is no longer an exaggeration or motivational ploy to spur the Lions into a sense of urgency to cope with what is at stake. Winning games is a must. The finish line is coming up too fast to allow for second or third chances.

The Lions must find a way to beat the Ravens, the defending Super Bowl champions and a playoff-hardened team that is accustomed to producing in the clutch.

"No question, it's definitely a must win for us," Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said Thursday. "If we want to be where we want to be, and we want to be in control of that, it's a must win for us.

"It's coming down to the very end for us."

Suh referred something Coach Jim Schwartz said in a team meeting this week.

"Coach had (an) analogy for us," Suh said. "You're in the World Series. You're the pitcher or closer that comes in the game. You have three outs that you have to get out.

"We have three outs, and hopefully we can knock them out. It starts with the Baltimore Ravens."

It remains to be seen how the Lions handle the closer's role in the last three games.

Do they perform like Mariano Rivera and nail the lid on the division title by dispatching the Ravens, Giants and Vikings? Or do they serve up a couple of grand slams, the way the Tigers did against the Red Sox in this year's American League Championship Series?

The Ravens are in a must-win situation, too, and they've handled similar situations with strong closing performances to make the playoffs the last five years.

Home-field advantage should mean something for the Lions. Their offense is built to operate on a fast track, and they should feed off the home crowd and a friendly environment.

My prediction for Monday night: the Lions ride the rollercoaster like Todd Jones used to with the Tigers but ultimately get the job done. Lions 31, Ravens 28 – and it might take a leaping catch to close it out.

Here is the Ravens-Lions breakdown:

Ravens matchup focus – Ray Rice:

Ray RiceRay Rice can't be factored out of the Ravens' equation. (Photo: AP Images)

Rice has been one of the NFL's most dependable and productive all-purpose running backs, but his statistics in his sixth season are far below his career averages.

That doesn't mean the Lions can take him for granted, though. Rice has been a big-play producer for the Ravens throughout his career, and his stats do not reflect his ability or the faith quarterback Joe Flacco has in him.

"Not really," Flacco said in a conference-call interview. "Ray was banged up in the beginning of the year, and he's been trying to get healthy. He's been getting back to it. He's getting better and better.

"It just kind of is what it is. Ray's still dangerous. I still rely on him to get open in the passing game and get some yards for us on the ground."

Rice was slowed by a hip injury sustained early in the season. Although he has missed only one game, the injury held him back. The effect is evident in his stats. Rice has gone over the 1,100-yard rushing mark the last four seasons. He won't be close to it this year.

Going into Monday night's game, Rice has 549 yards rushing and a 3.0-yard average. He has 48 receptions for 255 yards and a 5.3-yard average.

Those are far below the averages Rice has put up. For his career, he has averaged 4.3 yards per carry and 8.3 yards per catch.

Ravens' playoff position:

Going into this week's games, they would be the second wild card and sixth seed in the AFC. The Ravens and Dolphins are both 7-6, but the Ravens have the tiebreaker advantage based on their 26-23 win over the Dolphins in Game 5.

Lions' playoff position:

They're tied with the Bears for first place in the NFC North. Both are 7-6, but the Lions have the tiebreaker advantage based on a sweep of their two-game season series.

Ravens-Lions series history: The Ravens have a 2-1 series lead but lost their only meeting at Ford Field, 35-17 in 2005.

Different building blocks: The Lions' and Ravens' rosters are built different on defense because the teams play different schemes.

On their 53-player roster, the Ravens have 10 linebackers and six defensive linemen for their 3-4 defense. The Lions have six linebackers and eight defensive linemen.

In the secondary, the Ravens have five cornerbacks and six safeties while the Lions have six cornerbacks and five safeties.

Stats pack:

Ravens rankings: Offense – 29 rush (82.3), 20 pass (266.8), 29 total (344.2); Defense – 8 rush (101.2), 14 pass (221.8), 9 total (332.8).

Lions rankings: Offense - 19 rush (112.5), 3 pass (296.9), 2 total (409.4); Defense – 6 rush (99.3), 25 pass (255.5), 17 total (355.2).

Ravens key stats: minus five in turnover ratio with 22 giveaways – 17 interceptions and 5 lost fumbles; No. 1 in red zone defense, allowing 13 TDs on 33 possessions (39.4 percent); in sacks allowed per play, 23rd on offense and ninth on defense.

Lions' key stats: minus 10 in turnover ratio with 28 giveaways and a 14-14 split of lost fumbles and interceptions; No. 6 in red zone offense, with 30 TDs on 49 possessions (61.2 percent); in sacks allowed per play, second on offense and 31st on defense.