Trying to make sense of the flawed but good Ravens

Baltimore RavensSportsFootballEntertainmentRadioSports IllustratedJohn Harbaugh

As you know, in the aftermath of every Ravens game, I do a weekly feature called “Five Things We Learned About the Ravens,” which was first the baby of my friend and former colleague Kevin Van Valkenburg, a writer and a person I think very highly of. After every game, Kevin would -- and now I do -- stay up until the wee hours of the morning trying to draw new, definite conclusions about a team we see more than our significant others.

I’m not looking for sympathy here. I actually enjoy writing it very much -- except after games with an 8:30 p.m. kickoff. But the point is I’m not sure how much we have learned about this team the past few weeks, especially since the Ravens follow one of two scripts every Sunday, depending on the location of the set.

Through eight games, here are five things that I’m still sure of: 1) The Ravens are one of the best teams in the weaker of the two conferences and are probably going to find a way to win 10 or 11 games. 2) The offense is great at home and maddeningly inconsistent away from M&T Bank Stadium. 3) The defense wishes it was a shadow of its former self, and the biggest problems are the lack of a pass rush and that the Ravens have gotten outmuscled up front. 4) Ray Rice needs the football in his hands at least 20 plays a game. 5) Unless there is a radical change in their play, I can’t see them beating two good teams on the road in the playoffs.

A summary if you skimmed that last paragraph: The Ravens are flawed but still pretty good, and they need to somehow hold on for a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game to win the Lombardi Trophy.

That being said, I'm really conflicted with this Ravens team -- I listen to talk radio and many fans are, too -- and I can't figure out if I'm being reasonable or that I've somehow become a homer over the past five years.

They have major flaws that will probably cost them eventually, but they're still 6-2 and I would be stunned, barring devastating injuries, if they missed the playoffs. So is it wrong that I'm writing this instead of their eulogy? They still have eight weeks to become the great team that coach John Harbaugh thinks they can be. And there is something to be said for finding ways to win games, which is why I haven’t buried them yet.

But there are some conclusions that I am close to making. I haven’t seen quite enough to make them yet.

I wonder if quarterback Joe Flacco has reached his ceiling. There’s no question he can play well enough to win a Super Bowl. We saw that in last year’s AFC championship game. But can he become consistent enough to carry the offense and the team week and and week out like the Ravens asked him to do in the season’s first half? I am starting to have doubts.

I wonder if the issues on defense are fixable. Overall, I think the secondary has played fine. It’s just that the lack of a pass rush, especially with Haloti Ngata banged up and Terrell Suggs working his way back from a very serious injury, is putting pressure on the rest of Ravens defense instead of opposing quarterbacks. And it looks as if the Ravens have left the defensive cupboard a little bare after focusing on the offense since 2007.

I wonder where that resilient group of guys that was fearless on the road, the team that won four road playoff games in three years and shattered the mystique of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, has gone and why there are no answers to the questions we ask the players and coaches before each road game.

Like I said, I’m not ready to draw certain conclusions yet. But the good news (or maybe it will be bad news) is that we are going to learn a lot about this football team -- the one that one Sports Illustrated writer called the least impressive 6-2 team in recent memory -- in the next month. After Sunday’s home game against Oakland, the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh then San Diego before playing the Steelers a second time in 14 days.

In the next four weeks, we will find out what these Ravens are truly made of, whether they can figure out their issues on the road when it really counts, whether they are still one of the top contenders in the AFC.

We will also find out if I really am a homer, or whether I was right for holding off of shoveling dirt onto their grave.

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