The Ravens certainly dug themselves a hole by going 3-4 before their bye-week break. They're 2½ games behind the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
But they still control their prospects. Despite not playing close to their best, they're just a game back in the race for the last wild-card spot in the AFC. Meanwhile, their season isn't even half over. Forget standings and stats; if they play good football, they're going to be fine.
What's it going to take for them to fare better down the stretch? Here's my recipe for success:
Although the Ravens defense has been pretty solid, it has not been opportunistic, forcing just nine turnovers in seven games. The secondary has just four interceptions despite being supported by one of the league's best pass rushes. Only seven other teams have fewer overall takeaways.
On the flip side, the Ravens haven't turned it over much themselves other than when Joe Flacco threw five interceptions in Buffalo. Overall, their turnover ratio for the season is minus-2. Reversing that trend alone would make a difference.
Give Rice some space.
It's no secret running back Ray Rice has struggled. Part of the problem was a hip flexor injury he suffered in September. Pro Football Focus says he isn't breaking nearly as many tackles as usual. But he also didn't have many holes to run through or much space to run in.
If the Ravens are going to get anywhere, they need Rice making plays. Part of that is on his blockers, who need to open more holes. Part of that is on Rice. I think it would help to get him the ball where he likes it most, in space, with room to maneuver, change directions. It's important that the Ravens stay committed to the run, but they have a better chance of giving Rice a jump start if they throw to him, too.
Protect their house.
The Ravens have been exceptionally strong at home in recent years, and with that in mind, their schedule is tailor-made for a strong finish. After Sunday's game in Cleveland, they finish with a run of games at M&T Bank Stadium – four of their next six and five of eight overall, including three in a row at one point.
The Ravens' typical MO is to win at home and split on the road. Winning all five of their upcoming home games would put them well on their way to another winning season. It won't be easy against such opponents as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and New England, but given their road struggles, maximizing their home-field edge is a must.
Tighten up on special teams.
Some things have gone right (Justin Tucker, Tandon Doss) but between the blocked punts, penalties and blown coverages, it's been a weekly adventure on special teams. Head Coach John Harbaugh called out the personnel when he said he would find players who want to contribute on these units. I suspect there will be some changes.
Some saw it as a sign of desperation that the Pittsburgh Steelers resorted to the Wildcat to move the ball against the Ravens. But the ploy worked, catching the Ravens off guard. I'm not advocating much of it for the Ravens' offense, but the unit could use a jolt. A little of the surprise stuff, whether it be the Wildcat or even just a gadget play, could bring some energy and give opponents more to think about.
Give Flacco a chance to do what he does.
Some people surely expected more after he signed his big contract, but between the shaky blocking, tepid running game and transition in the receiving corps, the Ravens' quarterback has almost had to go it alone on some days. That's limited what he can do. He hasn't played spectacularly, but for the most part, he has been the least of the offense's concerns.
Going forward is what matters. He seems to be adjusting to his new targets, hitting on 19 of 20 short-range attempts in his last game. More deep stuff would help. If the running game picks up at all, giving him more time to throw, he should make more plays.