They haven't always lit up the sky while doing it, but the Ravens have generated some genuine momentum in the past month.
Their 2016 season hit a low point when they fell to the New York Jets on Oct. 22 to run their losing streak to four games. But their bye-week break was well-timed and they've forged a nice turnaround since then, winning three of four games, with the only loss on the road to the NFL's hottest team.
The wins have them in position to get some things done. If the playoffs began today, the Ravens would hold the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
Whether they can retain that lofty spot is a major question, of course, but entering December, it's clear what elements will carry them as far as they can go. Their defensive front seven is formidable. Their kicker is on a breathtaking roll. Their work-in-progress offense is doing just enough to win.
But to echo what quarterback Joe Flacco intimated Sunday, the status quo isn't going to cut it.
The offense needs to score more. The defense is giving up a lot of yards. Yes, the Ravens were better in November than in October, but they're walking a fine line every week and need to improve if they want to get where they want go.
What needs to go right for that to happen? Here's my "must do" list:
- Flacco must continue to raise his game. It wasn't a shock that he was subpar before the bye, throwing just four touchdowns in seven games. He's coming back from a major knee injury. But he's trending in the right direction, having thrown six touchdowns in four games with sounder mechanics since the bye. Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has streamlined his decision-making, which has a calming effect, and also has utilized more no-huddle, which Flacco likes. The offense remains prone to long blackouts that could prove ruinous if they continue, and it's the whole unit's job to prevent them, but when Flacco is in rhythm, good things happen.
- Jimmy Smith must get back on the field. The Ravens can only hope that their best cornerback's sore back improves after it forced him to miss the past two games. Without him, the secondary is vulnerable to big-play receivers. But with Eric Weddle anchoring the back and the corners manned by rookie find Tavon Young and Smith, who was playing well, the Ravens can take on any passing game. It's encouraging that he was able to run late last week, according to Head Coach John Harbaugh.
- The Ravens must become road warriors. Their November wins all came at home, where they'll play the Miami Dolphins Sunday and the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 18. If the Ravens truly are playoff contenders, they'll find a way to keep holding serve at home. (They're favored by 3½ points Sunday against a Miami team on a six-game winning streak.) That would push their win total to eight, but they'll need more, bringing into focus the importance of their remaining road contests at New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – all tough spots. The Ravens have to win at least once and maybe twice, no easy feat for a team that is 10-19 on the road since the Super Bowl.
- The offensive line must stay healthy. Injuries have forced shuffling in this key unit all season, but things are trending in the right direction. Marshal Yanda's switch to left guard has him back on the field. Vlad Ducasse is playing well in Yanda's former slot. Rick Wagner earned the highest Pro Football Focus grade of any offensive player Sunday. Ronnie Stanley and Jeremy Zuttah are stabilizing after battling injuries. It's a precarious situation, but the line played its best game of the season Sunday.
All the talk about their tough finishing schedule is valid, but the Ravens have already played many of the teams with the NFL's best records in 2016, including the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and New York Giants, so they won't face anything they haven't already seen.
Yes, their winless October reduced their margin for error – one lapse could severely damage their prospects – but it's quite a feat that they're still in the thick of things after enduring a four-game losing streak.
They're at a crossroads, and it's clear what must go right for the Ravens to keep moving in the right direction.