It’s hard not to get caught up in this. For weeks I’ve been talking about the possibility of the Ravens ripping off four straight wins like they just have, and the potential for the schedule to pull the rug back out from under them just as quickly. For weeks I’ve been cautioning myself to not get too caught up in the euphoria of the Ravens and in particular their young franchise QB having success against the NFL’s lower echelon. And all along, I’ve been thinking that this is still an 8-win team at best, and simply not playoff bound, and there are still plenty of reasons to feel that way. But somewhere along the way, “Joe Can Do” and the new look Ravens offense has got me caught up in the very excitement I had set out to avoid.
Let’s face it, as Ravens fans we’ve been privileged to have seen a lot of spectacular things in the team’s very short history, but 134 points in 4 games can certainly have a mesmerizing effect on a team that’s been known for living on their defense, and still strikes fear in opponents first and foremost on that side of the ball. In fact, 134 points in 4 games is unprecedented in Ravens history. It’s never happened before. They were closest in 1996, with 130 over a 4 game stretch, from a team that we remember as dynamic offensively. They came close in 1999 and in 2000 too believe it or not, and again in 2003 behind Anthony Wright, but never quite 134.
Clearly this is where the price of poker goes up. The Dolphins, Browns, Raiders and Texans are ranked 11th, 16th, 21st and 30th respectively in scoring defense, in part due to the points that the Ravens put up on them, but also in part because they are simply mediocre to bad defenses. Upcoming, the Ravens will have to deal with a lot more upper echelon defenses, but on the bright side they likely won’t need 33 points per game to win.
There are still a number of reasons to be concerned. The Ravens’ all world run defense will likely force teams to go more pass heavy against them, and recently the team has shown that they’ll make you pay on the underneath stuff too. Sooner or later, teams will just sell out to attack the Ravens deep, and just do enough of the other stuff to keep them honest. The deep ball still looks to be a weakness for the team, and forcing teams to do it more often could force the defense to make adjustments, and put pressure on the offense to score more.
Flacco has been getting the job done, largely despite the lack of a playmaker in his receiving corps, and depending on the prognosis on Derrick Mason, he may have to go forward without his best possession receiver for the foreseeable future. There are still big questions to be answered in the kicking game as Matt Stover is a risky proposition outside of 40 yards, and we’ve yet to see if Steven Hauschka has the accuracy to make it as an NFL kicker.
Ed Reed has been largely missing in action so far this season, which is understandable if the Ravens are using him differently because of his injuries, but if that’s the case, it’s really puzzling why they’d risk him on a punt return last week, especially when Jim Leonhard had been doing so well returning kicks.
And rookie coach John Harbaugh has taken a number of questionable timeouts, which haven’t been costly yet, but still have to be reason for concern. And I have no idea what is going on with the team’s red flag review process, but clearly that system needs a complete overhaul.
Still, the Ravens are a work in progress. That’s usually the ideal place for championship teams to be at this time of the season. We all know where the 2000 Ravens were at this point in their season, and although these are clearly not the 2000 Ravens, look where the Giants were at this time last season too. Even going into the playoffs, few outside of their own diehard fans, thought the Giants would have the juice to go all the way. The Colts in ’06 and Steelers in ’05 both had a number of stumbles down the stretch and were widely being overlooked at playoff time. As I said, despite all of the reasons to be cautious, it’s just tough to not get ahead of yourself with this team.
They do seem to be answering a new question and showing a new wrinkle every week. Bringing in a kickoff specialist and using him for a 54 yard field goal is evidence of that. Todd Heap has been slowly finding his way back into the offense in recent weeks and broke out in a big way on Sunday, and just in the nick of time too with Mason going down.
Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are dominating the line of scrimmage, and have combined for more interceptions than any 2 active members of the secondary. And in the last two weeks, the Ravens have gotten away from the cute and tricky offensive plays that they’d used primarily to score in the earlier games, and showed that they can simply impose their will in a traditional straight ahead offensive scheme too.
I’m trying not to let my expectations get the best of me. There’s too much stacked against this team for it to be their year. Injuries, age in some cases, inexperience in others, the most difficult schedule they’ve probably ever had to deal with, and mostly the same old personnel on offense. There are too many glaring deficiencies, the young and banged up offensive line, the fact that Chris McAllister still leads the team in interceptions despite not playing in nearly half of the games. The fact that Suggs, Ngata, and Ray Lewis all have more interceptions than Reed, and Justin Bannan is tied with him.
There’s also the fact that Suggs still has scored more points than Todd Heap, who has been healthy all season so far. And now it looks like the team’s leading active receivers now have just 20 catches on the year too. And perhaps most of all there is the entire NFC East, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Cincinnati still standing between the Ravens and the playoffs.
Still though, even the most cynical among us have to be excited about the future of this club, and particularly this offense. Even the biggest of doubters would have to concede that with 4 home games left, the Ravens, always dangerous at M&T could have some fight left in them. The NFC East is looking more and more vulnerable with each passing week, and we all know what can happen when this defense gets on a roll.
If I had to pick today, I’d still put my guess at 9 wins, but a lot can certainly happen between now and the end of the season. The Ravens have at least proven that they have enough offense to meet the defense almost halfway, which is much closer than they’ve been in a long time. And the cold weather, which tends to favor a team that can run the ball and play defense is right around the corner.
The odds of a playoff berth still look slim to me, and the odds of a home playoff game look even longer. But it looks like an absolute certainty that this team will be playing meaningful football games well into December, which is more than most of us would have expected at the beginning of the 2008 campaign. And I’m guessing that playoff ticket orders will be out in the mail before long. And I’ll be laying out the money for them and hoping for the best. Maybe, just maybe, Joe Can Do.