December 9, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Josh Katzenstein

Monday breakdown: Weak Ravens could be just the tonic to make Lions feel better

The Ravens rank No. 29 in the NFL in rushing, averaging 82.3 yards per game. Leading rusher Ray Rice's average is 45.8. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

Timing is everything in the NFL, and the Lions couldn't have picked a better time for the Ravens to come to Detroit for "Monday Night Football." Itís a stage that gives the Lions an opportunity to impress a national audience against a Baltimore team that hardly resembles last year's Super Bowl champion.

Despite being plowed Sunday in snowy Philadelphia, 34-20, everything is still right in front of the Lions.

If they win their next three over the Ravens (7-6), Giants (5-8) and Vikings (3-9-1), the Lions win the NFC North, host a playoff game and put the memory of last year's 4-12 season completely to rest.

And, frankly, a good team should have no problem doing that. A good team can win two home games in a row against inferior opponents, then close the season with a road win against one of the worst teams in the NFL.

But, alas, this is the Lions, so skepticism appropriately remains until they take care of business when it truly matters.

There are a few ways to judge this team based on Sunday's loss to the Eagles, but the best would be to not put too much weight onto it. Just like it wasn't fair to over-analyze a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals, who are now 8-5, or a three-point loss to the AFC North-leading Bengals in Week 7.

Because, like Arizona and Cincinnati, Philadelphia is a good team. This wasn't similar to the losses to the Steelers (5-8) and Buccaneers (4-9) -- and frankly the Lions washed away those memories with a 40-10 thrashing of the Packers on Thanksgiving.

This was a road loss to a team with a powerful offense and an improving defense. Yes, the Lions were out-played, out-hustled and out-coached in the second half Sunday, but to think a loss to another division leader spells doom would simply be wrong, especially because the Eagles are better than the Lions' remaining three opponents.

The Ravens have won three in a row, all at home, against the Jets (6-7), Steelers and Vikings, but they are just 1-5 on the road this season.

Baltimore has no balance on offense and ranks 29th in rushing, averaging just 82.3 yards per game. They also average just 3.0 yards per carry, worst in the league, and running back Ray Rice has eclipsed 70 rushing yards just twice this season.

To put it in perspective, Lions backup running back Joique Bell has 504 rushing yards and seven touchdowns; Rice has 549 rushing yards and four touchdowns. And Bell has nearly 200 more receiving yards (436) than Rice (255).

Then there's Joe Flacco, the $120-million quarterback. His passer rating is 77, worse than both Texans quarterbacks, Case Keenum and Matt Schaub. Flacco is completing just 59.4 percent of his passes, and he's been sacked 41 times, second most behind Miami's Ryan Tannehill.

The Ravens still have a top-10 defense, ranking ninth overall and top 13 against the run and pass. But what made Baltimore's past defenses so great was the ability to force turnovers, and the Ravens have forced just 17 this season while giving up 22 on offense.

Of course, the Lions have 28 giveaways compared to 18 takeaways, so, as always, Monday's game could come down to the turnover margin.

It's far too early to make a prediction on next week's game, but the Lions say they thrive with their backs against the wall. And with a roaring crowd at Ford Field Monday, it seems like things should be in their favor against the reigning champs.

Around the NFC North

*After four losses and a tie, the Packers (6-6-1) finally won a game without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, beating the Falcons 22-21 in Green Bay. The Lions needed to make hay with Rodgers out, but the Packers still need to win out to have a chance at the division title. If Rodgers returns this week, that possibility goes from nil to fairly high.

The Packers' remaining schedule has road games against the Cowboys and Bears and a home game against the Steelers.

* The Bears (6-6) host the Cowboys tonight, and a win would tie them with the Lions atop the division, though the Lions hold the tiebreaker. Chicago has lost two straight to the Rams and Vikings, and Dallas has won three of four.

After this, the Bears go to Cleveland and Philadelphia before finishing at home against the Packers.

* The Vikings (3-9-1) could have and probable should have beat the Ravens Sunday, but they gave up the game-winning touchdown with four seconds left to fall 29-26. Making matters worse, star running back Adrian Peterson (ankle) left the game in the second quarter.

Around the NFL

* The Saints (10-3) bounced back after last week's blowout loss to the Seahawks with an impressive 31-13 victory over the Panthers (9-4). Carolina had won eight straight and hadn't allowed more than 24 points in a game all season, but for now, New Orleans is in control of the NFC South.

* The Patriots (10-3) stole a 27-26 victory over the Browns, but they were punched in the gut during and after the game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a torn ACL and is out for the rest of the season. Even though the Patriots have overcome devastating injuries and keep finding ways to win, Gronkowski's injury is a devastating blow to their Super Bowl hopes.

*The 49ers are back. With a strong defensive effort and 110 rushing yards from Frank Gore, San Francisco (9-4) beat the Seahawks 19-17 Sunday. Seattle should have no problem winning the NFC West, but the 49ers are the wild-card team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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