The Ravens haven’t really looked the part of a division champion through the first nine games of the season.
They didn’t win a game in the month of October.
The offensive line can’t stay healthy and the offense ranks in the NFL’s bottom 10 in most statistical categories.
Three of their five victories have come against two teams who’ve gone a combined 2-17.
Their highly-paid quarterback has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns and is in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his career.
And yet the 5-4 Ravens are in sole possession of first place and have the only winning record in the AFC North entering the latter half of November. Flawed as they might be, the rest of a struggling division envies Baltimore’s position with Thanksgiving right around the corner.
Since divisional realignment took place in 2002, the champion of the AFC North hasn’t won fewer than 10 games. Including the history of the old AFC Central, you’d have to go back to 1990 when Cincinnati went 9-7 to find a division champion with fewer than 10 wins.
Barring dramatic improvement from Baltimore, Pittsburgh (4-5), or Cincinnati (3-5-1) over the final seven games, no team appears likely to reach that 10-win plateau. It’s no sure thing that anyone even reaches nine wins, either, especially when you’re reminded that the Ravens still have to face four non-division teams currently sporting winning records.
With the Bengals’ loss to the New York Giants on Monday night, the AFC North fell to 7-19-1 in non-division games in 2016. Even removing winless Cleveland from the equation, the AFC North holds the worst winning percentage in non-division games among the NFL’s eight divisions.
In short, it’s been a bad year for a proud division that’s sent at least two teams to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons. But the Ravens are in solid position to take advantage of the mediocrity.
John Harbaugh’s team faces a difficult task playing at Dallas on Sunday, but three of Baltimore’s next four games after that will be played at M&T Bank Stadium. Winning all three of those home games against Cincinnati, Miami, and Philadelphia would put the Ravens in position to finish 9-7 if they can win just one more road game down the stretch. The Christmas Day game at Pittsburgh would be the most meaningful from a potential tie-breaking standpoint.
The offense is likely to remain the Ravens’ Achilles heel with the injuries along the offensive line, but a defense ranking first in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and third-down defense and ranking in the top five in several other statistical categories is eager to prove it belongs among the more special groups in franchise history. The Ravens will have their chance to show it with several tough opponents on the horizon.
The path will be difficult, but it’s looking better than the rest of a down AFC North at the moment.