Sitting on top of the mountain in the AFC could be both a curse and blessing.
A curse; doubt of maintaining control from outside, thoughts of letdown from within and the caution of unexpected unforeseen circumstances. A blessing; having some room for error and it is a confidence builder with opportunities to get better.
For the Baltimore Ravens, it’s neither a curse nor a blessing to be at the top of the AFC – their expected to be in this position, especially performing well while entering the month of December.
“I think we have always just had good teams. We play good defense,” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh in his press conference. “We have been able to run the ball. I think that some years we have been better at running the ball, some years we have been better in different areas, I guess you’d say. But, we’d like to believe that everything we do is built for December.
“We are trying to be our best in December and January,” he continued. “The whole program is organized that way. I think our players understand that, and they begin to think that way. So, we try to improve throughout the course of the season in every area and be at our best this time of year.”
As predicted, the Ravens finished with a 3-1 record for the third quarter, with an expected letdown loss – this time to the Seattle Seahawks (5-7) on the road, 22-17, for Week 10.
Considering that the Ravens are one of the elite teams in the NFL, they could have been undefeated, similar to their counterpart, the Green Bay Packers (12-0), as Baltimore’s three losses came at the hands of subpar, sub-.500 squads in the Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Ravens’ loss to the Seahawks was one of the team’s strangest defeats in franchise history as their best offensive player, running back Ray Rice, was shutdown – by his own coaching staff. Rice carried the ball – five times – against the Seahawks, and the NFL community was left scratching their heads.
Most specifically, a turf toe injury sustained by linebacker Ray Lewis in the Seahawks game caused the Ravens to keep Lewis’ injury quiet. Lewis, the 15-year, 36-years old All-Pro veteran, didn’t practice while the Ravens’ assessed the degree of the turf toe injury.
Week 11 was a sigh of relief for Ravens fans, knowing that Baltimore had to play against a good team, as the purple and black dominated solid opponents all season. The next team opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals – when at the time – they were in contention for the AFC North division title. However, the Ravens’ defense had to stop the high-powered Bengals without Lewis.
Led by linebacker Terrell Suggs, the Ravens defense responded.
The Bengals (7-5) were flexing their young muscles against the veteran Ravens squad at M&T Bank Stadium. Led by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, he and his band of Thundercats in the Bengals threatened to score in the final minutes of the contest, but the Ravens held them off.
Thanksgiving normally brings families together, a gathering millions of people in the United States look forward to each year.
Apparently, the NFL wanted to have a family affair as the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, matched wits from the sideline for a Thanksgiving battle between the Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers (10-2). This contest marked the first time in NFL history that two siblings coached against each other as head coaches.
John’s band of men in the Ravens dominated the entire game, led by Suggs and the defensive line for a 16-6 win in Baltimore.
The Cleveland Browns hosted the Ravens in Week 13, and this was the first time that Baltimore dominated an inferior foe with the help of Rice’s career-best of 204 rushing yards and a touchdown, 24-10.
For the month of December, the Ravens will battle against three of four sub-.500 teams in the Indianapolis Colts (0-12), the San Diego Chargers (5-7) and the Browns, but they all have some bite, especially the Chargers, as they are healthy as a team for the first time this season.
A curse for being at the top – tied with the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Texans – has created thoughts of a letdown against the Ravens due to their three losses, and Baltimore can not afford any more. The three losses that the Ravens sustained haunt the minds of many Ravens fans and supporters, as they should have been victories. Knowing they have three additional paper wins, will the Ravens have another or two mental breakdown losses in the near future?
“That would presume that we weren’t mentally ready for the other ones,” said Harbaugh when asked about whether the team’s three losses were a part of having mental breakdowns. “I think we were. What we didn’t do is we didn’t play very well. Whatever led to that, you’re saying that it was that issue, I am saying it may have been that issue, but I am not sure it was that issue, so we can’t just stop at that. We’ve got to turn over every stone. We certainly acknowledge that those three losses, coming off of big wins, against teams with sub-.500 records, were not good performances.
“They are team losses the way we look at it – coaches, players, all of us,” he continued. “They are there, they are on the record. Now, we face a similar challenge this week, but a tougher challenge because now we have to go play a team in our division, a team that you saw play the Bengals last week and control the game for most of the game. We know the Bengals are a very good football team. The Browns have had some real heartbreaking losses. They have been within a point or two in the fourth quarter in most all their games so far this year, and they have played really well.
“It’s always a tough game against a division opponent, against Cleveland, up there. It’s always a dogfight,” he added. “That’s never going to change. It’s going to be just like playing the Steelers, just like playing the Bengals in that sense. We’re very tuned into that. We just have to play better than we have in those three circumstances you are talking about.”
Clearly, the Ravens will not have a letdown among their young defenders like linebacker Jameel McClain and defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, as the injury of Lewis has been – a blessing in disguise. A player such as linebacker Albert McCellan may not have had the opportunity to play with the defense, if Lewis was playing.
“I think Albert [McClellan] played very solidly,” said Harbaugh. “That was something that really we had no idea how he was going to play, in all honesty. He’s never really played inside linebacker ever in his career. At Marshall, he moved around and played different positions. He was outside ‘backer, inside ‘backer, nose guard, defensive tackle – he played it all there. I think it shows you what kind of a football player he is.
“He’s been working really hard with [linebackers coach] Dean Pees over the course of the last six or seven weeks after we kind of focused on inside linebacker for him,” he continued. “The way he played is pretty remarkable. We’re proud of the way he played. That builds depth for us in there…I think everybody has a chance now to see kind of what we’ve been seeing over the course of the last couple of years. Jameel played the way he’s been playing for the last two years, really.
“He’s not playing any differently. I think he gets a little bit better every week,” he added. “He’s a serious student of the game. He’s talented, he’s physical, he learns from Ray [Lewis], he learns from [linebackers] coach [Dean] Pees. He’s a good, solid… He’s one of the better inside linebackers in football right now.”
The Ravens will finish the regular season out with four straight wins, and the Bengals will not pose any threat down the stretch.
If the Patriots slip up with a loss, the road to the Super Bowl for the AFC comes through Baltimore because the Ravens swept the Steelers and defeated the Texans.
Suggs and the Ravens defense displayed no mercy on the Peyton Manning-less in Baltimore, 24-10. Suggs had three sacks and forced three fumbles in the victory.