BALTIMORE — Winning four of your first five games is usually an awfully good way to start a season.
The Baltimore Ravens improved to 4-1 on the season with a 31-17 win over the Denver Broncos (2-3) Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. The 4-1 record leaves the Ravens alone at the top of the AFC North, with a tie-breaker win over their rival Pittsburgh Steelers already in hand.
When the Maryland Terrapins beat the Duke Blue Devils to improve to 4-1 on October 2, I wrote a post-game column saying the Terrapins’ record may well be “deceptive.” I pointed out that the Terps had not played a particularly imposing schedule, that they had played the majority of their games at home, and that they had relied on semi-fluky big plays to find success in games they had won. I tried to point out that the team had indeed won four of their first five games, but didn’t strike me as a team that was worth getting particularly excited about.
On the absolute opposite side of the spectrum, the Ravens’ 4-1 record is not deceptive whatsoever. The team not exactly been perfect over their first five games, but they’ve been particularly representative of the 4-1 record they sport.
They’ve won when QB Joe Flacco has been less than perfect (the Week 1 win over the New York Jets at the Meadowlands), they’ve won when they’ve failed to get much of anything going running the ball (like the Week 4 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field), they’ve won when their proud run defense has been gauged (Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns in Charm City) and they’ve won when they’ve given up big yards to an explosive passing attack (Sunday against the Broncos).
In playing five games, they’ve probably deserved to win four.
On Sunday, the Ravens showed any doubters why they belong amongst the elite teams in the AFC and the entire NFL. They set the pace for the game offensively, with their defensive and special teams units following suit. When all was said and done, the Ravens had outgained their opponents on the ground by a count of 233 yards to 39; claimed 28 first downs to Denver’s 16, and held the ball for nearly 13 minutes more than their opponent.
A late Kyle Orton to Brandon Lloyd TD strike made the final score look respectable, but it was an absolutely dominant performance.
A dominant performance that came on the heels of a grueling four game stretch to open the season where the Ravens had to play three games on the road and three games against fellow AFC North opponents. After that stretch and Sunday’s game, the Ravens have earned every bit of their 4-1 record; a record that ties them for the best record in the league.
Head Coach John Harbaugh wasn’t quite ready to proclaim his team’s greatness following Sunday’s game, but was particularly optimistic. “I think we have an opportunity to be a really good team” said Harbaugh. “That kind of a football team is in us. We wanted to play like that (Sunday). I think in many ways we did.”
Other members of the team were equally optimistic. LB Ray Lewis said the start was a “good feeling”, adding that the Ravens are “just playing overall complete team football right now.” Flacco said “we feel like we’ve got a pretty special team here, and we’ve just got to continue to work hard to get better each week.”
After putting together his first 100 yard rushing game of the season (he finished with 133 yards and two touchdowns), Rice was asked whether the Ravens were an “elite” team. He had a unique response.
“I think we’re a balanced team.”
Maybe that’s the best possible way to explain it.
The Ravens are a good football team in almost every area right now. While not perfect, Flacco has played very well over the last three weeks-including his first big final minute drive to beat the Steelers. Rice, backup RB Willis McGahee and FB Le’Ron McClain have shown themselves to be formidable even when not necessarily explosive, with McGahee adding 10 carries, 67 yards and a touchdown in limited action Sunday. The WR corps has not given the Ravens the explosive numbers some fans had hoped for, but Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, TJ Houshmandzadeh and TE Todd Heap have all stood out in different games or at different times. Even rookie TE Ed Dickson led the Ravens in receiving yards Sunday, although all of his came on a single 58 yard grab on the Ravens’ opening possession.
The Offensive Line has come together despite playing without standout tackle Jared Gaither. The defensive line has held together through bumps and bruises and the departure of Trevor Pryce. DT Haloti Ngata was fairly described by Harbaugh last week as “playing as well as any defensive player in the league.” The linebacking corps has allowed just one 100 yard rusher (Peyton Hillis in the aforementioned Cleveland game) and the secondary entered Week 5 as the league’s top passing defense.
Heck, even Special Teams have continued to improve. Punter Sam Koch’s already exceptional season continued Sunday with four punts for 174 yards. Kicker Billy Cundiff connected on his only field goal attempt; but also added four touchbacks on five kickoffs. While neither the kick return or punt return units have created any points for the Ravens, the team’s kickoff coverage unit managed to force a much needed turnover (the only turnover the team forced in the game) when LB Jason Phillips leveled Broncos WR/KR Demaryius Thomas and Ravens S Ken Hamlin picked up Thomas’ fumble.
It’s been impressive in every aspect of the game. The team has been exactly as balanced as Rice mentioned, and it’s why they’ve shown themselves to be completely representative of their 4-1 record.
Thus far, they’ve done it without Gaither, Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, Special Teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo and speed receiver Donte’ Stallworth, all of whom they still expect to return. On Sunday, they did it without reserve DE Paul Kruger and reserve LB Tavares Gooden, both of whom the team also expects to return.
They might not be the best team in football. They’re likely still in need of an upgrade in their pass rush, and their offensive play-calling has still left something to be desired at times.
But at 4-1, they’re not a fluke. Instead, they’re legitimately amongst the best teams in the league, and very deserving of the title “Super Bowl contender” (which I will admit I stuck on them myself after the Week 4 win in the Steel City).
In Week 6, they’ll have another chance to prove how good they are when they visit Foxborough to face the New England Patriots; who they split a regular season and postseason series with last season at Gillette Stadium. Despite parting ways with star WR Randy Moss, the Patriots remain amongst the most significant organizations for a team to measure itself in the NFL.
When the Ravens beat the Pats in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last season, it was considered an upset.
They’re good enough now that an encore performance would have to just be considered a win.
Hear from Harbaugh, Flacco, Rice, Ngata, McClain, Dickson and CB Chris Carr following Sunday’s win NOW in the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault here at WNST.net!