For the Ravens (4-6) to have any realistic chance to right their ship and regain control of their own destiny in 2013, they are going to have to beat Rex Ryan's New York Jets (5-5) this coming Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. A big part of that challenge is to disrupt the emerging game of the former West Virginia Mountaineer at QB for the Jets, rookie Geno Smith.
Smith has looked good and he has looked awful at times. In fact the Jets as a team have looked great one week and dismal the next, alternating like clockwork a week of victory with utter defeat the next. Jets fans are going nuts about it. A lot of them blame Geno and don't want him to start against the Ravens.
''We know our fans deserve better, and we certainly are going to play better," coach Rex Ryan said.
Ryan plans to stick with starting his rookie quarterback – at least through Sunday.
After stunning New England 30-27 in overtime Oct. 20, the Jets were blown out 49-9 by Cincinnati the following week. They bounced back with a surprising 26-20 victory over New Orleans on Nov. 3 before being routed 37-14 by last-place Buffalo last Sunday.
"Obviously, we know we have to play better. That's not hard to figure out," Ryan said.
It's also not tough to discern that Smith, who tossed three interceptions against the Bills, needs to get better. He's thrown one touchdown and eight picks over the last five games, and he completed 38.1 percent of his passes over the last two before giving way to backup Matt Simms – who went 4 for 6 for 60 yards and a touchdown last week – in each contest.
Smith's 16 interceptions are one fewer than Eli Manning's league-worst total and his 20 turnovers are the most in the NFL, but he contends he's still progressing.
"I don't think statistics tell every single thing, every part of the story,'' Smith said. ''I obviously don't want my stats to look like that and I don't want to play like that. But I've gotten better. I've become a smarter player."
He's also not surprised people are calling for his starting job.
''I think every player in the NFL, everyone's job is on the line, every single person," Smith said. "That's day to day, no one's job is 100 percent secured."
Ryan emphatically backed Smith this week and doesn't plan to make a change until at least after facing the Ravens.
''I've watched the tape. I put myself through it again and I think, without question, Geno's going to start this game," Ryan said. ''I think Geno has a chance to be a good quarterback. We have to get him dialed in better."
Despite all of its struggles, New York still finds itself in better position for a playoff berth than the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, with whom Ryan spent 1999-2008 before leaving for the Jets.
During that time he coached safety Ed Reed, who left the Ravens in the offseason to sign with Houston before being waived and signing with New York last week. Reed was given a warm welcome when he returned to Baltimore with the Texans on Sept. 22, and he'll get another look at his struggling former team.
The Ravens have lost four of five after falling to Chicago 23-20 in overtime of a game that was delayed more than two hours because of severe weather. It marked their fourth loss by three points or fewer and their seventh straight contest that was decided by no more than six.
"In the end, it comes down to winning a tight game and doing the things you have to do to win a tight game," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's what we have to continue to work on doing a better job of because we haven't done a good enough job in close games."
For all Geno Smith's troubles lately, Joe Flacco hasn't exactly been lighting it up himself. He ranks 26th with a 75.3 passer rating, and his 13 interceptions are the most he's thrown in his career with six games still remaining.
Flacco finished 17 of 31 for 162 yards, a touchdown and two picks last week, including one returned for a score.
"We all wish we could play better, and that starts with me," Flacco said. "Up to this point, no, I haven't and we haven't played the way we want to – or should.
"It's annoying. I'm a guy that does not like to throw interceptions. Believe me, I don't like the fact that when you look at what we've done, that I've thrown (13 interceptions). That's tough."
Baltimore hasn't scored more than 20 points in its last five games and ranks 30th in total offense with 308.5 yards per game. It also has a minus-5 turnover margin that is 23rd in the league.
What Joe doesn't tell you is how porous his pass protection has been so far this season. Ordinarily he could compensate for the injuries and inconsistencies on his offensive line by running play action off his running game. But this year, for the most part, no running game has emerged—at least until last week in Chicago—which really puts Flacco in a box with a target painted on him. Combine that reality with the loss of his two best possession receivers—Dennis Pitta (hip) and Anquan Boldin (signed by 49ers)—and you have a grim reduction in the amount of passing opportunity and strategic options for Flacco. He's almost forced to take more chances than ever now when he throws downfield. There just aren't that many safe plays left out there for him.
Maybe that begins to change this Sunday in Baltimore.
The Ravens may hope to get the ground game going again after rushing for a season-best 174 yards against Chicago. Ray Rice entered with 289 yards through eight games, but he ran for 131 and a touchdown last week.
New York ranks eighth with an average of 129.5 yards on the ground, as Chris Ivory followed his 139-yard performance against New Orleans by rushing for 98 and a touchdown last week.
The Jets have lost seven straight meetings with the Ravens, including both under Ryan.
The weather will be chilly with a high of 35 degrees F. But the Ravens defense wants to put some major heat on Geno Smith. Getting any kind of game-altering pressure on Smith early and often is probably the surest way for the Ravens to take charge and buy time for Flacco to figure out his own thing against a Jets defense that will be doing a lot of stunts and blitzes.