A day after a humbling 34-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers knocked the Ravens off their perch atop the AFC North, they are back in the lead — for now, at least — after the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 20-3, on Monday night. The 10-4 Ravens are in position to clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC — they swept the Steelers (10-4), giving them the tie-breaker — and will be guaranteed a first-round playoff bye and a home game if they can win their final two games.
But as we have learned, nothing is guaranteed when these Ravens hit the road. And after they host the 4-10 Cleveland Browns on Saturday, they will travel to Cincinnati on New Year's Day for the season finale against a 8-6 Bengals team that could be fighting for a wild card spot.
"We haven't let it get away yet," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "We still have to win our next two games, starting with the Browns. So that's the thing we can control. We have complete control over the next two weeks as far as what we do."
The Ravens are fortunate to have the lead in the AFC North after receiving an early Christmas gift from Harbaugh's brother, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. For the Ravens to keep control of the division this time — and ultimately have success in the postseason — they have a few major concerns to address, ones that resurfaced in a humbling loss in San Diego.
• The disappearing pass rush: Entering Sunday night's game, the Ravens had 16 sacks in their previous three games, including seven from outside linebacker Terrell Suggs over that span. But against the Chargers, the Ravens didn't record a single sack of quarterback Philip Rivers.
The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks is a common theme in the team's road losses, as the Ravens have five sacks combined in those four defeats.
Early in Sunday's game, the Chargers used screen plays and quick passes to slow down the pass rush, and their running backs and tight ends chip-blocked to give the Ravens a serpentine path to Rivers. When the Ravens did get one-on-one matchups on linemen, they couldn't capitalize.
"I was looking forward to going against [Jared] Gaither, but they needed some chip help," Suggs said. "I knew they would pay me some attention and I was looking forward to a lot of one on ones but I didn't get them. That's my fault. I got to adjust accordingly and not let it affect my game. When we did get there, he got the ball off. He's a great quarterback."
Suggs will be wearing leis and maybe a hula skirt at season's end. But the Ravens must find a way to generate pressure when opponents take their Pro Bowl pass rusher out of the game.
•The suddenly-vulnerable secondary: The Ravens are still statistically one of the NFL's best teams against the pass. But with cornerback Lardarius Webb hobbled by a toe injury, forcing them to start rookie Jimmy Smith, they couldn't hang with the Chargers' explosive wideouts.
Malcom Floyd had five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown while teammate Vincent Jackson had three for 84 yards, including a 58-yarder on which he beat cornerback Cary Williams.
"We knew they were going to go downtown," Suggs said. But without pressure on Rivers, the Ravens were powerless to stop Floyd, Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates, who had a pair of catches.
After the game, Smith acknowledged that he and his fellow corners were victimized by double moves on a few occasions. But on Monday, Harbaugh said the blame should be spread around.
"It's a combination of a lot of different things," he said. "Those are good players and boy, you've got to be at your best. They exploited us a couple of times. … It's everybody. It's all of us."
A healthy Webb will help the secondary. But can they hold up against elite QBs in the playoffs?
•The inconsistent pass attack: In Baltimore's four losses, quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (five). And away from home, his passer rating has dipped from 86.5 to 65.5 and he is averaging nearly 50 fewer passing yards in road games.
He had an up-and-down performance against the Chargers, completing 23 of his 34 attempts for 226 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also took five sacks, but Harbaugh said that Flacco had no choice but to hang onto the ball because his receivers weren't open.
"Joe didn't have a lot of places to go with the ball that were clear-cut to him," Harbaugh said.
Looking at the big picture through 14 games, Harbaugh sees progress. The Ravens have integrated rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith and young tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta into the offense, and he thinks, Sunday night notwithstanding, the offensive line has clicked.
"We're more explosive than we were at any time last year, and that continues to get better," Harbaugh said. "Every aspect of it has gotten better. But if we're going to be a team that's going to have to win a shootout at some point in time, then we want to be a team that can do that."
We got a glimpse of this offense's capabilities in the second half against the Arizona Cardinals and in two wins over the Steelers. It remains to be seen if the Ravens can do it against high-scoring teams such as the New England Patriots and Chargers should they meet in the playoffs.
Lost in Sunday's loss was the fact that Ravens are officially in the playoffs for a fourth year in a row. Harbaugh wouldn't let the disappointment from Sunday shroud that achievement completely.
"It's what you do over the course of the season that earns you the trip to the playoffs," he said. "I'm proud of that for our team."