This game, for the Ravens, was the chance to feel like a college student just needing to get through an easy, pass-fail exam before moving on to a murderer's row of sweat-fest finals. Or a tennis player just needing to hold serve and win an early-round tournament match before moving on to tougher foes.
Their game against the lamentable Browns last night was just something to survive, just something to get through without incident. There was only one way it could become newsworthy – if the one-win Browns engineered an upset that knocked the Ravens out of the playoff picture. But that didn't happen. A powerful burst of play-making early in the third quarter offset an otherwise sluggish performance, and the Ravens won, 16-0.
They held serve. They survived the easy pass-fail test. Now it's on to those bigger, more important matters, the real exams – the games that will determine the arc of their season.
"It's probably everything for our season, this (upcoming) three-game stretch," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said last night.
First, there's a home game against the undefeated Colts on Sunday. Then, also at home, the first of two with the Steelers. Then a road trip to Green Bay.
The Ravens probably need to win at least two to remain relevant in the AFC wild card race, their only realistic playoff scenario with the surprising Bengals having gained control of their division. And obviously, none of the three games will be nearly as easy as last night's get-well date with the punchless Browns, whom the Ravens handled despite continuing to exhibit some of the tendencies that have recently caused concern.
They again started slowly, lumbering through a scoreless first half and allowing the downtrodden Browns to conjure upset dreams. Kicker Steve Hauschka's latest key miss, a 36-yarder in the first quarter, added to the gloomy feel, and Harbaugh was terse on the subject after the game, saying, "We need a kicker to play better than that."
They also never generated much of a downfield passing game, as quarterback Joe Flacco completed just three passes to wideouts (all to Derrick Mason, including a 41-yarder that set up a touchdown). Cleveland's defense was a lot better than its offense last night, but still, the unit is the worst in the league statistically and the Ravens scored, hmm, just one offensive touchdown?
"It was an ugly game, but that's the way some of those are in the NFL," Flacco said.
Indeed, and the Ravens won because their defense did precisely what it should against an offense that former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, said was probably the worst he had ever seen in the NFL. (Whew!) The Browns never came within 20 yards of the red zone. Brady Quinn completed just 13 of 31 passes and literally seemed to shrink as the game progressed.
Peyton Manning and the Colts will be an incalculably harder test on Sunday, but it was a positive to see the defense warm up for that by pressuring the quarterback, covering well in the secondary, making a big play (Dawan Landry's interception return for a touchdown), and seemingly regaining a bit of its nasty edge.
That edge was present throughout but sharpened after Quinn knocked the Ravens' Terrell Suggs out of the game with a low shot to the knees during a third-quarter interception return on which Suggs was a nonfactor. Cheap shot? "Heck, yeah," the Ravens' Ray Lewis said. Quinn apologized, but yes, it was a cheap shot that left Suggs with a sprained knee, and Quinn should be fined.
The Ravens' task will be that much harder if they have to take on the Colts and Steelers without both Suggs and Haloti Ngata, who missed his second straight game last night because of a sprained ankle.
But injuries are never an excuse in the NFL – everyone has them. No matter who plays on defense next Sunday, the Ravens will have to find a way to put pressure on Manning. The Colts are a supreme test, the polar opposite of last night's, but the Ravens left themselves with little margin of error by losing four games in the first half of the season, so now they have to do something big just to stay in the playoff race.
They're getting their shot, though, and hey, isn't that all a team really wants?