No matter how it’s looked, Ravens in great position early in 2016

September 25, 2016 | Luke Jones

You don’t have to buy into the 3-0 Ravens after a sloppy 19-17 win over Jacksonville on Sunday.

They’ve defeated three teams that are a combined 1-8 so far this season. Baltimore has won each of those games by a single possession and trailed in the fourth quarter of the last two.

Quarterback Joe Flacco spoke the truth after the game despite the Ravens being off to their best start since 2009 and standing alone in first place in the AFC North.

“You don’t want to have to be winning these games the way we are,” said Flacco, who threw two fourth-quarter interceptions after a whopping 21 straight completions earlier in the game. “I think it makes us tougher as a football team. At the same time, you’re not going to be able to get away with this when you’re playing really, really good teams in January.”

The mere fact that Flacco could mention January says it all, however. That possibility was already looking bleak after an 0-3 start last year.

The Ravens may not be a great team, but they’re in a great position with a perfect record through the first three weeks. Since 1990, teams starting 3-0 have made the playoffs 75.6 percent of the time.

The odds look even better with the Ravens now playing consecutive home games against Oakland and Washington. A 5-0 start hardly appears out of the question, and that would be welcomed when you consider what the rest of the schedule looks like after that.

The offense has managed only four touchdowns in three games. The running game has largely been a non-factor at a meager 3.3 yards per carry. The passing game has impressed at times, but then there are moments such as Mike Wallace’s drop in the end zone on the opening drive of the third quarter on Sunday that throw the rhythm out of whack for an extended period of time.

Still, you see plenty of reason for optimism with Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta looking more and more like their old selves, Wallace providing a needed vertical presence, and young receivers such as Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore flashing potential. The offensive line has been an obvious concern, but there were always going to be growing pains with two rookies starting on the left side.

In other words, there’s reason to think the group can improve markedly. That’s why a 3-0 record feels that much better, regardless of the quality of opponents.

“I think we’re a team that’s kind of growing as we’re moving along here,” Flacco said. “We have a lot of moving parts and a lot of guys who haven’t played with us before. At some point, we might see that we’re building up, building up, building up and all of a sudden it turns over very quickly. That’s kind of what I’m looking for — for it to turn over very quickly and for us to explode as an offense and really take off.”

The most impressive part of the Ravens through the first three weeks, however, has been a defense that’s allowed only 14.7 points per game. That’s including a 20-point nightmare of a first quarter in Cleveland, meaning the defense has been even stingier in its other 11 quarters of action.

The pass rush hasn’t been as consistent as defensive coordinator Dean Pees would like, but it has stepped up when needed, sacking Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles four times in the fourth quarter after failing to register one in the first three quarters on Sunday. You’d like to see more pressure off the edge, but veteran Terrell Suggs came alive with two quarterback takedowns in the final period and the Ravens will hope to welcome back Elvis Dumervil in Week 4. The interior rush has been more consistently disruptive with Timmy Jernigan leading the way with three sacks in the first three games.

But the biggest difference from last year’s defense has been the ability to force turnovers. The Ravens intercepted three passes against the Jaguars to give them five for the season, just one shy of their franchise-worst 2015 total.

On Sunday, Baltimore picked off Bortles twice in the final five minutes. Last week, it was a C.J. Mosley interception in the final minute that preserved a 25-20 victory. These were the game-changing plays that were largely absent against both good teams and bad teams a year ago.

Despite their imperfections on Sunday, the Ravens had two distinct advantages over the Jaguars that Suggs identified after the game. And they’re huge reasons why Baltimore should feel even more optimistic about a 3-0 start.

“You want a quarterback with ice in his veins,” Suggs said, “and you damn sure want a kicker with ice in his veins as well.”

Justin Tucker proved the latter with a 54-yard field goal with 1:02 remaining to complete a 4-for-4 day. He has now connected on all three of his tries from at least 50 yards, an area where he struggled last season.

The Ravens may not be the best 3-0 team in the NFL, but they’ll take that over being called the best 2-1 team like Pittsburgh or a good 1-2 squad like Cincinnati. Sure, you can argue that the Ravens haven’t beaten anybody, but they haven’t lost to anybody, either.

A 3-0 start leaves less work to do later and more leeway to figure things out in the coming weeks as the Ravens will hope to be ready to step up their play against the better teams looming later in the year.

Maybe even in January.