Well now, it’s been a while since we’ve seen the Ravens play a meaningful game. Despite the Super Bowl taking place way back in early February, a seven month wait couldn’t hold us back. We finally get to return to some normalcy as summer ends in Baltimore.

The NFL action actually kicked off last night, as the Seahawks dominated the Packers 36-16. It’s what some kind of expected, but probably just hoped for a close game as it was in a primetime spot.  When I say “some”, I mean fans. Sports analysts/writers rarely ever like to predict blowouts between two teams likely to make the playoffs, especially when doing so would be saying a top-tier QB (in this case Aaron Rodgers) wouldn’t have a good game and be a reason for the loss.

With that in mind, the writers can’t ever predict big blowouts when they happen, and vice versa. See this guy for some of his detailed picks for this week. I personally find him (in my humble opinion) one of the worst sports writers employed, and most of it is his crutch of only assuming quarterback play matters. Also, as I’ve just mentioned, he too falls into the trap of widely predicting close games. The top game should catch your attention (should you choose to click to link, it’s okay if you don’t) as he predicted the Seahawks to eke out a 24-23 win over the Packers, solely because they “find a way” to win at home.

In one fell swoop, he discounts the strengths on Seattle’s defense & rushing that complement their passing attack (which has a surprising amount of star/former star receivers). This is all the while believing, like many other sports analysts, that Green Bay’s passing attack more than makes up for the other facets of the game. The real issue that hit them last night, like it did to Denver in the Super Bowl, is that they become a one dimensional team that only needs its passing to be taken away in order to fall apart.

The Packer defense was missing their star defensive tackle B.J. Raji, and their defense ended up surrendering 200+ yards on the ground. Although Marshawn Lynch is a very tough running back to take down, this game exposed flaws in Green Bay’s defense schemes that other teams should exploit. Despite a very marketable linebacker, Clay Matthews didn’t become a deterrent to his teammates’ missed/broken tackles. Their secondary is still good, but who cares if you can run all over them? Balanced teams like Seattle are the known arch enemies to prolific passing teams.

I write all this about Seattle since, while I was watching the game last night, I saw a bit of the Ravens in the Seahawk players & style.  Whenever the Ravens pull off upsets against media-favorite teams, the articles that follow have a general “how did they lose?” kind of narration rather than analyze the “why” of the Ravens’ success.  The trends that I’ve noticed have been that the teams that win in the playoffs & super bowls the best (as well as being not to shabby in the regular season) tend to have a very strong balance in the many facets of football.

Think back to the 2009 season’s playoffs (Jan 2010): when the Ravens beat the Patriots, how did they do it?  The Patriots had already established a pass heavy, high scoring attack for a few years, and had history on their side as they hadn’t lost a playoff game at home since the 70s. However, their flaw was their over abundant reliance on passing & their pass defense while ahead. The Ravens, instead, pounded the Patriots with a great running attack and the defense held firm against any long gains. The Ravens ended up losing the next game against the Colts as Flacco, then in his 2nd year, couldn’t keep up with Peyton Manning and the rushing attack didn’t get the same numbers as against New England.

When the Ravens can hit on all cylinders, then you know you have a special team who could win it all if given the chance. It pains me to say, but the recent times that the Steelers won the Super Bowl, they too had good balance in passing, rushing, defense, and special teams. However, in the 2010 season, they got more reliant on passing and rushed much less (along with their defense rapidly aging without enough replacements), and the Packers were able to beat them in the Super Bowl that season.

Let’s not forget about the Giants’ two recent Super Bowl wins. In the two years that they won, their whole team looked suspect at the end of the regular season. Most of it stemmed from Eli Manning being subpar at crucial moments and being unfairly compared to his brother. When the 2007 playoffs came about, the Giants’ mix of mediocre passing, three-pronged running attack, and a strong pass rushing defense proved to be the deciding factors in their wins, especially against the Patriots’ bid at a 19-0 season.

The 2011 season seemed even more unbelievable that the Giants won again over a high scoring Patriots team. Despite barely qualifying for the playoffs at the last minute with just a 9-7 record, they retained balance in their different facets even though the team was arguably worse than the 2007 squad. (I’m probably mentally blocking out how well the Giants did that year since the Ravens were just a dropped TD from going to the Super Bowl to face these guys and could very well have won two years in a row)

This Sunday (1pm CBS), the Ravens will be facing the Bengals, who have the looks of a balanced team themselves. They do have a solid running attack, one of the top defenses, and their passing game is both strong & underrated. The question, you may be asking, is why a balanced team like the Bengals has an 0-3 record in the playoffs for three straight years with basically the same core of players? Especially after I just praised balance teams as the near certain guarantee to playoff success?

Well, to answer that, you first have to look deeper into the philosophy of the Bengals.

Cinci had some good time spent with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as their 1st string running back and now have moved onto Gio Bernard, who shined last year in his rookie campaign.  They have a capable rushing attack, but it’s not their point of emphasis.

The Bengals still pass to set up the run.  Their main offensive attack is passing, namely Dalton-to-Green. When you take that away, you just have to deal with the running back. The problem is that their running backs have benefited almost solely from one-back sets with defenders not expecting the run. Of course, if you want to take away their run, they will naturally try to come back with passing.

The problem with the passing scenario is that if a defense has the personnel to match up well with A.J. Green and at least one of their tight ends, then Andy Dalton will have to look for his other options which will harm his success. There is a large drop off in skill between A.J. Green and their 2nd wide receiver, Marvin Jones. Jones can expect to get 100+ yards receiving if Green is double covered, but the scoring goes down as Jones is less likely to wrestle away both touchdowns & interceptions from defenders. Previous examples of games where the Bengals’ rushing & passing is contained from being explosive have led to Dalton making mistakes, like sacks, fumbles, and interceptions.

Their defense is well rounded and could provide some headaches for teams, provided that it has the same production as last year & there isn’t much of a drop off after their DC Zimmer left for a head coaching job. Their top 3 cornerbacks have been the quality of top standout starters for years, in that they could go on many teams and be their #1 starter.  The defensive line is a large force that is hard to run against, even when their star tackle Geno Atkins has missed a lot of time the last two years. Probably the only weakness they have on defense is at middle linebacker, as they don’t seem to have an established star there.  (I had to look it up to be sure that Rey Maualuga is still the starter.  Before the start of last season, he was most rumored to be replaced/cut.) That happens to be the most important position on defense, as they are the “quarterbacks of the defense” who make the audible adjustments and bark orders to their secondary & linebackers during the pre-snap.  (I bet Dennis Pitta will have a lot of success in this game against Rey)

When this game rolls around on Sunday, make sure to get your pre-game essentials ready, as it’s different to finally get back into football mode after 7 months.  Everything will come back to you soon enough.

Enjoy the game, go Ravens! (Also, go O’s!  Their magic number is down to 15 after sweeping the Cincinatti Reds here. Maybe a good omen?)