OAKLAND (AP) — Fortunes change quickly in the NFL, where a bad game or two or a key injury can turn a team from a Super Bowl contender to one searching for answers.
Just ask the Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders.
After both opened the season with two wins that boosted confidence and expectations, the Ravens (2-2) and Raiders (2-2) come into Sunday’s meeting in Oakland on two-game losing streaks with a growing number of doubters.
The Raiders must reverse this slide without star quarterback Derek Carr , who broke a bone in his back in last Sunday’s 16-10 loss in Denver and is expected to miss between two and six weeks. That forces E.J. Manuel into the starting role and puts added pressure on the rest of the offense to get moving after struggling the past two weeks.
“Farm your own land. That’s all we need to do,” tight end Lee Smith said. “At the end of the day, everyone is trying to solve the world’s problems. Here in this locker room as far as football is concerned, everyone has to do their job and everything will be fine. Don’t try to do too much. Nobody needs to try to be a hero now that Derek is down.”
The Ravens have their own issues at quarterback, although it’s not about health.
Joe Flacco is coming off perhaps the worst two-game stretch of his career. He completed just eight passes for 28 yards two weeks ago in a 44-7 loss to Jacksonville and was only slightly better last week against Pittsburgh in a 26-9 defeat when he threw two interceptions for a second straight game and averaged 4.8 yards per attempt.
“He has been in ups and downs before; he has been doing it 10 years now,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He has had the highest moments, and he has had some of the lowest moments, like any player, especially at his position, in this league. I trust him, I believe in him, and we need to roll.”
Here are some other things to watch:
MANUEL’S MOMENT: Manuel gets another shot to prove he can play in the NFL after failing in Buffalo. A first-round pick in 2013, Manuel began his rookie season a starter but got benched the next year. He started three games the past two seasons. Manuel showed some good signs in relief last week, completing 11 of 17 passes for 106 yards. He led a 73-yard drive for a field goal that ended when Jared Cook couldn’t catch a well-thrown ball in the end zone. He then moved the Raiders across midfield while seeking a late, go-ahead touchdown before throwing a game-sealing interception on a deep shot to Amari Cooper.
“I’m looking at it as an opportunity that’s before me right now,” Manuel said. “I’m not necessarily looking for a second chance.”
BEASTLY CHALLENGE: The Ravens yielded 144 yards rushing to Le’Veon Bell last week, and now they face the prospect of going up against Marshawn Lynch.
“We’ve got ‘Beast Mode’ this week. You definitely don’t want to (try to) get back on track with this guy,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “But when it is tough on everybody else, it is just right for us.”
Lynch was limited to 12 yards on nine carries against Denver and ranks 33rd in the NFL with 151 yards rushing. The Ravens know he’s better than that.
“Marshawn Lynch is one of the best running backs in the league,” Harbaugh said. “He has a very unique style; he is a very violent runner. He never stops turning, and he breaks tackles.”
SLOW STARTS: The Raiders have struggled to get started the past two games, failing to manage a single first down in either first quarter against Washington or Denver. That marked the first time since 2008 Oakland failed to get a first down in consecutive first quarters.
“We’re a better unit than we’ve shown offensively the last two weeks. No question,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “It hasn’t been good enough and it’s led directly to losses, two losses.”
MISSING BRANDON: The Ravens will play a third straight game without 340-pound nose tackle Brandon Williams, the force in the middle of the defensive line. Williams has been sidelined with a foot injury, so Michael Pierce is attempting to fill the void.
“He’s our tone setter,” Pierce said of Williams. “That’s something that I’ve been focusing on, especially last week. I had to come out there, get the guys ready to go and just be a primary playmaker for this defense.”
THIRD-DOWN WOES: Figuring out third down on both sides of the field will be important for the Raiders this week. Oakland has converted 2 of 23 third-down tries on offense the past two games as the running game hasn’t stagnated, leading to too many long-yardage situations. Defensively the Raiders are tied for sixth worst, allowing conversions on 45.6 percent of third downs.