Ravens coach John Harbaugh is well aware of Robert Griffin III. Unlike the rest of us, he's tasked with stopping RGIII Sunday when Baltimore faces Washington at FedEx Field.
The game has huge implications for both teams; the Ravens are coming off a loss to division rival Pittsburgh, and at 9-3 now find themselves No. 3 in the conference, one spot out of a first-round bye. The Redskins, meanwhile, beat the Giants on Monday night and are currently seventh in a six-team playoff race.
As recently as a week ago, not many people would've given the 'Skins a chance against the Ravens. Now, after how Griffin, the running game and the defense are playing -- coupled with a Ravens' rough patch -- Vegas actually has Washington as slight favorites.
Like the 12 previous opponents on the 'Skins' schedule, Harbaugh and the Ravens will focus on Griffin, a player Harbaugh has known about for years.
“I knew of him because my brother recruited him four years ago to Stanford,” Harbaugh said via the Washington Post, referring to Jim, now the 49ers coach. “He had recruited both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III -- both out of Houston, both 4.0 [GPA] students, by the way, so they were Stanford guys. Andrew ended up going there, and obviously, RGIII went to Baylor. I’ve known him for a little while, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him."
Everybody respects Griffin. Harbaugh's tasked with stopping him, which has proved problematic for a lot of defenses. Exacerbating matters for the Ravens, who annually have one of the most tenacious units in the league: they're not the menacing group we're used to seeing. Linebacker Ray Lewis has been slowed by age and injury; last year's defensive player of the year, Terrell Suggs, suffered an Achilles injury this summer and injured his triceps last week; and neither the pass rush nor the run D has done much of note.
It's a huge issue for a team that historically has been led by its defense while the offense made sure to stay out of the way.
But this season is different for several reasons; in addition to the defense's decline, the offense has become more reliant on fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco. He got off to a strong start but has struggled with consistency in recent weeks. Still, he has one of the strongest arms in the NFL and has uncanny accuracy on deep throws (it helps that second-year wideout Torrey Smith is both big and fast), not to mention running back Ray Rice, arguably the most dynamic player on the planet.
Put another way: any other year, this matchup would be about how the Redskins were going to keep the Ravens' defense at bay. On Sunday, expect Washington to pound the ball, keep Baltimore's D on the field (and the O on the sidelines), control the time of possession, and wear them down.
That would've been an unthinkable game plan as recently as a year ago but that's the magic of of RGIII. He makes defenses second-guess every decision, and that hesitation creates opportunities for Washington's offense. That means we should expect a healthy dose of Alfred Morris along with some Baylor-inspired read-option football that leads to big plays downfield.
At this stage in the season, there is no margin for error. The Redskins have to win Sunday, and the three Sundays that follow if they're going to have a chance at the postseason. But you already knew that.