Eisenberg: Fast Start Doesn't Guarantee Anything

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What does it all mean? It means they're off to a good start. That's all.

At the risk of being a killjoy, a good start is a far cry better than a stumbling start, but it doesn't guarantee anything. The Ravens aren't assured of a third straight trip to the AFC playoffs just because they're 4-1 and have already beaten the Jets in New York and the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

That's all good, but in the NFL, how you start a season is a whole lot less important than how you finish.

Just a year ago, the Ravens won their first three games, beating the Chiefs and Browns in Baltimore and the Chargers on the road. They were coming off a trip to the AFC championship game, sitting atop power polls, and it appeared the pieces of a memorable season were falling into place.

But the fast start proved to be a mirage. They weren't the team they appeared to be. They hurt themselves too often with penalties, needed more offensive firepower, lacked consistency, and experienced bad luck when quarterback Joe Flacco came up with a bruised hip. After starting 3-0, they lost three straight games and six of eight to fall to the fringes of the playoff picture before rallying to make the field as the sixth and final AFC seed.

A year later, the Ravens' fast start looks far more trustworthy as the start of something big. They've navigated a tougher schedule, played better defense and exhibited more play-making capabilities. Flacco is a year older, a year better. Anquan Boldin has given the passing game a huge boost.

Perhaps because they have so many veterans, they seem to possess a maturity that bodes well for the rest of the season. After Sunday's dominating win over the Broncos, a handful of players were asked if this was an elite team. The implication was obvious. Was it time to start getting excited about what might happen this season?

Not one bit.

"It's a long season," cornerback Chris Carr said.

Indeed, it is. Compliments are nice, but the Ravens aren't even a third of the way through their schedule. They've accomplished a lot but still have a long row of obstacles to clear, improvements to make. They're playing tough, winning football, but not even their most loyal fan would suggest they've achieved greatness.

Going forward, they need to develop a more consistent running game to gird themselves for the late season; they are currently ranked 14th in the league in rushing yards, hardly sufficient for a team with a solid line and so many quality backs. They need to eliminate their nasty habit of going dark on offense for long periods, like Sunday's 25-minute stretch.

They also need to force more turnovers – one interception in five games, none by a defensive back, is a pattern that will eventually cause problems.

And let's face it, they need some luck. Flacco was never the same after he hurt his hip in Week 6 last season. There's not much you can do to avoid injuries other than get in shape and hope for the best, but let's be clear, the healthiest teams are often the ones that go the farthest.

Through five weeks, it looks like the best teams in the AFC are the Ravens, Steelers and Jets, physically dominating teams with playmakers. The fact that the Ravens have already beaten the other two means nothing. The Steelers didn't have Ben Roethlisberger. The Jets game was in September. A year ago, the Patriots beat the Ravens in Week 4, and the Ravens won the playoff rematch. Things change. Some teams get better, others don't.

If you get off to a good start but don't keep getting better, that's all you're left with in the end – the good start, the yummy appetizer. It tastes terrific at the time but hardly satisfies when you don't also get the great dinner and dessert later.

John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*

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