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Loss of Haloti Ngata feels like knockout blow to Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The announcement of Haloti Ngata's four-game suspension Thursday brought shock and what feels like a knockout blow to a tumultuous season for the Baltimore Ravens.

There's an emotional toll on an already reeling Ravens defense that abruptly loses its best lineman just three days before a critical showdown in Miami. There's also a strategic fallout from having a 340-pound wall removed from the middle of the Ravens' front at a time when they finish the season against four teams -- Miami, Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland -- that want to run the ball.

If the Ravens can reach the playoffs without Ngata, it would be an admirable feat considering the current state of their defense. If they fail to do so, it would be a fitting way to end a season that began with the scandal of another Pro Bowl player in Ray Rice.

Some will say the Ravens should still make the postseason. They have the easiest remaining schedule among AFC playoff contenders, and they're losing only a defensive tackle. But Ngata isn't just your typical interior lineman. He single-handedly ended two goal-line stands this season with a fourth-down tackle and a forced fumble. He has knocked down seven passes and intercepted two. He's a playmaker on a defense that doesn't strike fear in offenses anymore.

More importantly, Ngata was the ultimate stop sign in the middle of the defense. Since his first season in 2006, the Ravens rank first in fewest opponents' rushing touchdowns (70) and second in fewest yards rushing per game (92.5). This should gain the attention of the Dolphins (10th-ranked rushing attack), Jaguars (23rd), Texans (fourth) and Browns (14th).

The Ravens have crumbled in the secondary since losing top cornerback Jimmy Smith to a season-ending foot injury. You have to wonder whether the run defense will suffer a similar fate without a five-time Pro Bowl player disrupting the interior of the line.

A franchise long defined by defense is facing the prospect of having its season unravel because of its inability to stop teams. It was going to be a challenge to rebound from a fourth-quarter collapse to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. The Ravens now have been blindsided by the loss of a dominating fixture on defense who was on the field for 149 of the Ravens' 154 games (including playoffs) over the past nine seasons.

The Ravens are expected to replace Ngata with promising rookie second-round pick Timmy Jernigan. It's just getting to the point where you have to question how much more loss the Ravens can endure. The Ravens (7-5) are 1.5 games behind the AFC-North leading Cincinnati Bengals and are in the thick of the AFC playoff race despite losing Rice, Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. Taking away Ngata could be the loss that causes the Ravens to miss out on the postseason for a second straight season.

Ngata will be eligible to return if the Ravens make the playoffs. If the Ravens reach the postseason -- which would mean they withstood his absence -- it might influence what they do with Ngata in the offseason. He will count $16 million against the salary cap next season, and the Ravens could free up $8.5 million by cutting him.

It looked as if Ngata would force the Ravens to pay him the final year of his contract by having one of his best seasons in recent memory. But the Ravens have to question how much Adderall affect his turnaround season.

The next four weeks will decide the Ravens' playoff fate. How the Ravens fare without Ngata during this time could determine his future with the team.