On the plus side, Suggs is back, the offensive line has played well and the special teams, led by rookie kicker Justin Tucker and free-agent signee Jacoby Jones, have been the best in the league.

On the downside, the Ravens rank near the bottom of the league in covering No. 1 and No. 2 receivers and dead last in stopping runs at the line of scrimmage. The injuries to their best cornerback, Webb, and their best defensive lineman, Ngata, have direct bearing on both areas. The Ravens are also the NFL's fifth most inconsistent team, according to Schatz.

"I would've expected their defense to be better," he said. "And this isn't a situation like the Giants last year, where they got healthy right before the playoffs. The Ravens appear to be stuck with these injuries. So the question is: Can they get the defense back to being above average? If they can do that, they become much more serious contenders."

Baltimore fans also have their doubts about the defense.

"I believe the Ravens will make the playoffs," said Mark Eisner of Sykesville. "I do not believe they will go particularly deep, though. I see injuries, age and under-performance in a lot of key spots and skill positions."

"Most die-hard fans, including myself, see the writing on the wall," added Chris Knoerlein of Rodgers Forge. "Our defense has been decimated by season-ending injuries, the departure of solid veterans and young talent still coming into their own. It didn't help that they ran into a buzzsaw otherwise known as the Houston Texans a few weeks ago. That game put us in our place and established the clear cut stud of the AFC."

The team's defensive stars are certainly aware that the unit's performance hasn't lived up to past standards. The Ravens haven't finished outside the league's top 10 in total defense since 2002 but currently rank 26th. Asked recently if the struggles have shocked him, Suggs, in his typically booming tone, said it's too early for gloom and doom.

"Everything we still want to do, all the goals we set at the beginning of the season, are still there," he said. "Every defense, you don't say, 'Our goal is to be this rank and that rank.' Your goal is to win your division, get the first-round bye and make it to the playoffs and contend for the Super Bowl. Traditionally, you need a great defense to achieve those things, and we are going to get back to being a great defense."

In general, the Ravens say they need to get better to go deep in the playoffs. But the locker-room vibe remains that of an assured contender.

It's going to be a tough stretch for us, but to be 7-2 right now, where we are at, feels pretty good," Rice said. "If we were on the flipside of it going into this tough stretch, it would be very difficult. But right now, to be 7-2 and know that we control our destiny and not any other team is a pretty good feeling."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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